Occupational Asbestos Exposure

Anyone working in industrial, blue-collar, or military jobs during the 20th century may have been exposed to asbestos. Asbestos was widely used since it was cheap and durable. However, asbestos exposure can cause mesothelioma. After the health risks were known, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) limited how asbestos could be used.

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Asbestos Exposure in the Workplace

Millions have been exposed to asbestos, a cancer-causing material, in the workplace.

From the 1930s to the early 1980s, worksites across the country asbestos-containing products on a daily basis. As a result, thousands of workers who regularly handled asbestos are now developing diseases like mesothelioma.

Asbestos was widely used on worksites because it was very powerful and the associated health risks were not publicly known.

However, the companies that made and sold asbestos-based products knew the deadly truth and hid the facts for decades to make a profit.

Today, workers who were exposed to asbestos decades ago should be of any mesothelioma symptoms. Workers with mesothelioma and other diseases caused by asbestos exposure are entitled to compensation through legal claims.

A History of Occupational Asbestos Use

Asbestos was seen as a valuable, useful product. It was added as a staple ingredient to countless manufactured products, including construction materials and automotive parts.

Asbestos Use in the 1900s

  • Industrial asbestos use began well before the turn of the 20th century, but it wasn’t widely used until World War II and postwar construction.
  • Between 1949 and 1979, it is estimated that 27.5 million workers were exposed to asbestos.
  • Nearly 70% of workers in the 1900s were regularly exposed for at least two months of employment.

Anyone working on construction sites during this era was at risk of exposure. The closer you were to handling asbestos directly, the higher your risk of developing asbestos-related diseases later on.

Between 70% and 80% of asbestos consumption has been attributed to the construction industry, whether industrial, commercial, or residential.

Asbestos Use Today

For the most part, new manufacturing and construction projects in North America no longer use asbestos.

By the early 1980s, asbestos-containing products were virtually excluded from industrial applications.

However, some workers are still at risk today:

  • Workers who renovate and demolish old buildings could be exposed to asbestos if they don’t know it is present beforehand.
  • First responders like firefighters, police officers, and paramedics may come in contact with asbestos when they enter old buildings being destroyed by fire or other threats.
  • Auto mechanics working on older vehicles built with asbestos-lined brakes and engine parts are also at risk of continued exposure.

One of the largest occupational groups still at risk is our nation’s veterans. Though older military assets and buildings have been cleared of asbestos products, active-duty members continue to face threats of asbestos exposure overseas.

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Occupational Asbestos Exposure Risks

Anyone working in industrial capacities up until the 1980s is at major risk of workplace asbestos exposure. Even today, residual asbestos use is still a major occupational health and safety threat.

Certain occupations are known to be high-risk jobs and have since led to numerous asbestos-related deaths, including deaths caused by the rare and aggressive cancer known as mesothelioma.

High Occupational Risks

Reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have indicated that over 96% of deaths caused by mesothelioma were related to occupational asbestos exposure.

Levels of Occupational Exposure

Workers exposed to asbestos on the job may wonder how much exposure puts them at risk of developing mesothelioma.

While just being exposed once can be risky, continued and ongoing asbestos exposure is far more dangerous.

Levels of exposure include:

  • Direct Exposure: Jobs like mining, shipbuilding, and drywall installation put workers directly in contact with asbestos or asbestos-based products. Many of them personally handled asbestos as part of their job duties.
  • Indirect Exposure: Office workers, inspectors, or other personnel may have also been exposed to asbestos, even though they were unlikely to handle it themselves.
  • Frequent Exposure: Anyone working in a mine, on a construction site or in a manufacturing plant that produced items using asbestos would have had frequent, even daily, exposure to asbestos.
  • Incidental Exposure: Workers who moved between departments, subcontracted at job sites, or worked for suppliers could have been exposed to asbestos when visiting worksites that handled asbestos products.

Workers who directly and frequently handled asbestos are certainly at high-risk of having dangerous fibers lodged within their mesothelial tissues (linings that cover vital organs).

High-Risk Worksites

High-risk worksites used asbestos in large amounts and on a frequent basis. Anyone working at high-risk worksites up to the early 1980s has a high chance of exposure to dangerous levels of asbestos.

Worksites with the highest risk of asbestos exposure include:

Mining Sites

Without question, asbestos mines are the worksites that posed the highest health risks to workers. Though asbestos mines have long since been shut down in the U.S., workers from earlier years are very much at risk of developing mesothelioma or asbestosis in the coming years.

Shipyards

Asbestos was a staple of shipbuilding for decades. Whether you worked for the Navy in a shipyard or for private vessel construction, you were likely exposed to asbestos on an ongoing basis.

Construction Sites

Because the vast majority of asbestos use was attributed to the construction industry, any construction site during the height of asbestos consumption would have had asbestos products present from start to finish. Electrical wiring, insulation, paints, tiles and roofing shingles all contained asbestos.

Chemical Plants

One of the most notoriously dangerous worksites for asbestos exposure is the chemical plant. In general, chemical plants throughout history have used extensive amounts of equipment and products containing asbestos for fire protection and insulation.

Oil Refineries

Oil refineries used asbestos-based products to insulate pipes and protect them from fire. Unfortunately, this put workers at risk of dangerous levels of asbestos exposure.

Other worksites with risks of asbestos exposure include:

These worksites are just a few of the work environments that put people at risk of developing deadly asbestos-related diseases. However, not everyone employed on these sites had the same level of risk.

Ultimately, your level of asbestos exposure risk depends on the type of day-to-day work you performed.

High-Risk Occupations

Certain job roles were riskier than others for asbestos exposure.

Some workers physically handled asbestos on a regular basis through the equipment they operated, the products they used, or the personal protective equipment they wore.

Occupations with the most asbestos-related deaths include:

  • Shipbuilders: Anyone responsible for removing or installing asbestos products on vessels was at the highest risk of asbestos exposure out of all occupations in the shipbuilding industry.
  • Insulators: Any given construction site employs insulators. If a worker regularly needed to install or remove asbestos-based insulation, they could be at risk of developing asbestos-related diseases later on.
  • Construction Workers: Countless construction materials contained asbestos. If you were a drywall installer, tile setter, roofer or painter before the 1990s, then you were likely handling asbestos on a daily basis.
  • Plumbers: It was common practice to wrap pipes in asbestos for insulation. Pipelayers, pipefitters, plumbers and steamfitters responsible for removing or installing asbestos-based insulation are among the jobs with high numbers of asbestos-related deaths.
  • Firefighters: Older buildings that catch fire release toxic levels of asbestos fibers into the air. Firefighters responding to emergencies have all been exposed to dangerous levels of asbestos. Many more will face these risks as older buildings continue to be fire hazards.

Dozens of other occupations pose asbestos-exposure threats, including all of the following:

People employed in these high-risk occupations are still at risk of exposure today by working in older buildings and worksites holding asbestos — especially if the risks are not known beforehand.

That being said, there are protocols in place that allow professional asbestos removal companies to properly renovate or destroy asbestos-filled structures.

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Thousands came into contact with asbestos on a regular basis. Get a free legal case review to find out if you may have been exposed.

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Occupational Health and Safety Asbestos Regulations

Though asbestos manufacturers did their best to hide the truth about their products’ health risks and cover up their negligence, eventually the indisputable medical evidence became clear.

Two governing bodies — the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) — have taken on the responsibility of regulating asbestos exposure in the workplace.

The first regulations on asbestos exposure in the workplace came in 1971.

The EPA helped define what materials were considered toxic, and the two agencies together decided on maximum exposure amounts.

Since the initial regulation, OSHA has continued to reduce the maximum allowable concentration of asbestos in the workplace.

Asbestos Hazard Classifications

OSHA has classified the level of danger for different asbestos-related work activities. Class I jobs are the most dangerous and involve the direct handling of asbestos. Class IV covers custodial and maintenance duties that require dust and debris cleaning.

Because asbestos is still a workplace threat, all workers are encouraged to find out what steps their employers are taking to keep asbestos exposure under control.

It’s up to employers to ensure all workplaces meet the Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL) of asbestos.

They must also regularly monitor airborne asbestos levels to make sure they don’t exceed the set limits. Construction and shipyard industries, for instance, both have specific requirements to control airborne asbestos limits.

All workers should be aware of their rights to a healthy and safe work environment.

Were You Exposed to Asbestos?

Thousands came into contact with asbestos on a regular basis. Get a free legal case review to find out if you may have been exposed.

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You are within your rights to ask for copies of workplace hazard test results to ensure your employer is following all regulations. You can also request to see records of any workplace injuries and illnesses.

Asbestos-Exposed Workers Have Legal Rights

All workers exposed to asbestos should be aware of mesothelioma symptoms and report them to their doctor immediately. There are other asbestos-related diseases as well that you may develop.

If you were or are still employed on a worksite that used asbestos, and you have developed an asbestos-related disease, you have legal rights to compensation.

Today, many manufacturers are liable for costs associated with illness and disease caused by asbestos exposure. Workers can access legal compensation through asbestos trust funds or by filing a lawsuit.

Our legal partners have vast experience handling mesothelioma cases — start your free case review now.

Author:Stephanie Kidd

Editor-in-Chief of the Mesothelioma Justice Network

Stephanie Kidd

Stephanie Kidd works tirelessly as a dedicated advocate for the vulnerable and underrepresented. Stephanie worked as a copywriter for an agency whose focus was communicating safety procedures on construction work sites. With her extensive background in victim advocacy and a dedication to seeing justice done, Stephanie works hard to ensure that all online content is reliable, truthful and helpful.

Last modified: August 7, 2019

View 4 Sources
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Malignant Mesothelioma Mortality — United States 1999-2015” Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/66/wr/mm6608a3.htm?s_cid=mm6608a3_w. Accessed on December 6, 2017.
  2. National Institutes of Health, “Occupational exposure to asbestos: population at risk and project mortality -- 1980-2030” Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7171087. Accessed on December 6, 2017.
  3. United States Department of Labor, “Occupational Safety and Health Administration” Retrieved from: https://www.osha.gov/pls/oshaweb/owadisp.show_document?p_id=10862&p_table=standards. Accessed on December 7, 2017.
  4. OSHA Fact Sheet “Asbestos” Retrieved from: https://www.osha.gov/Publications/OSHA3507.pdf. Accessed on December 7, 2017.
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