Asbestos Exposure in the Workplace

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Anyone working in industrial, blue-collar or military occupations during the 20th century is not only at risk of having been exposed to asbestos but also at risk of developing asbestos-related diseases. Certain occupations posed a more serious threat than others due to varying levels of exposure.

Asbestos is a known carcinogen that can lead to fatal illness. It was used extensively for over 120 years and is still used today in other parts of the world. Asbestos was manufactured and distributed by companies who knew of the health risks associated with their product but continued to sell it anyway.


As a result, you may have been exposed to asbestos on the job for part or all of your career. Read on to learn more about how you may have been exposed to asbestos in the workplace and what you can do next to seek compensation or get tested for asbestos-related diseases.

Here’s what everyone needs to know about asbestos exposure in the workplace:

  • Millions of workers have been exposed to asbestos in the workplace
  • Worksites across the country used asbestos on a daily basis
  • Many asbestos manufacturers were negligent and put workers’ health at risk
  • Workers exposed to asbestos, who have developed asbestos-related diseases may be entitled to compensation
  • All workers should familiarize themselves with the signs and symptoms of mesothelioma, a rare and deadly disease only caused by asbestos
  • Learn more about at-risk occupations in our FREE Mesothelioma Justice Guide—request yours today

Despite a massive shift away from using asbestos, products containing asbestos still exist in places like operational buildings, vehicles and more.

Because they’re still in use, asbestos products continue to pose a health threat to workers today.

Asbestos Exposure in the Workplace

Anyone working in industrial capacities up until the 1980s is at major risk of having been exposed to asbestos on the job. 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 CDC have indicated that over 96% of deaths caused by mesothelioma were related to occupational asbestos exposure.

Because of the severe risk that asbestos poses in the workplace, all civilians and veterans must be aware of how their work history potentially put them in jeopardy and may still threaten their health today.

Asbestos Use 1920s to 1980s

Industrial asbestos use began well before the turn of the 20th century, though its proliferation didn’t explode until World War II and during postwar construction.

It’s estimated that between 1949 and 1979, there were 27.5 million workers exposed to asbestos. Nearly 70% of these workers were regularly exposed for at least two months’ worth of employment. 

Between 70% and 80% of asbestos, consumption has been attributed to the construction industry, whether industrial, commercial or residential. Anyone working on construction sites during this era was likely exposed. The closer you were to handling asbestos directly, the more at-risk you were for asbestos-related diseases.

MJN Brief

Asbestos was used in dozens of different industries, however, the industries most affected by asbestos exposure were those involved in construction and manufacturing. 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 Today

For the most part, new manufacturing and construction projects in North America no longer use asbestos. In fact, by the late 1980s, asbestos-containing products (ACM) were virtually excluded from industrial applications.

But that doesn’t mean they no longer pose a threat to workers’ health. You could still be at risk of asbestos exposure on the job depending on the type of occupation you have. Workers involved in renovations and demolitions of old buildings are particularly vulnerable.

One of the largest occupational groups that is still at risk are U.S. veterans. Though older military assets and buildings have had some asbestos products removed, active duty members continue to face threats of asbestos exposure overseas.

Auto mechanics working on older vehicles that were built with asbestos-lined brakes and engine parts are also at risk of continued exposure, including both civilian and military auto technicians.

Threats to First Responders

First responders such as firefighters, police officers and paramedics may be thrown into risky situations when they are forced to enter old buildings being destroyed by fire or other threats.

Access Asbestos Trust Funds

Compensation for treatment, loss of income and other damages is available through Asbestos Trust Funds. Patients with mesothelioma and other asbestos-related illnesses may qualify.

Find Out If You Qualify

Occupational Asbestos Exposure Risks

Workers who have been exposed to asbestos on the job may wonder how much exposure puts them at risk of developing mesothelioma. One exposure is all it takes to have inhaled or ingested asbestos fibers. While one-time asbestos exposure can be dangerous, health risks greatly increase with frequent, long-term exposure.

Your level of exposure risk may vary. Types of possible asbestos exposure include:

  • Direct Exposure: Certain occupations such as miners, shipbuilders and drywall installers worked directly with asbestos or asbestos-based products. This means they personally handled asbestos as part of their job role.
  • Indirect Exposure: Office workers, job site 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.

If you think you were exposed, you should let your doctor know about your work and military history.

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). The reality is that despite high-risk asbestos exposure occupations, virtually every older adult today may have been exposed at some point or another.

High-Risk Worksites

Anyone working at high-risk worksites up to the late 1980s has a high chance of having been exposed to dangerous levels of asbestos. High-risk worksites are those where asbestos was used in large amounts and on a frequent basis.

Some of the worksites in industries with the highest risk of asbestos poisoning 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 is a staple product used in shipbuilding. Whether you worked for the Navy as a shipyard worker 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 are high-risk job sites for several reasons, including the risk of fire and explosion. To mitigate this risk, workers used asbestos-based products to insulate pipes and protect them from a fire. Unfortunately, this puts all petroleum refinery workers at risk of dangerous levels of asbestos exposure.

Other worksites with risks of asbestos exposure include:

These job sites 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.

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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.

Here are some of the top occupations accounting for the most asbestos-related deaths:

  • Shipbuilders: Anyone whose responsibility it was to remove or install asbestos products on vessels was at the highest risk of asbestos exposure of all occupations in the shipbuilding industry.
  • Insulators: Any given construction site employs insulators. If a worker’s responsibility was to install or remove asbestos-based insulation, then they are at high-risk of developing asbestos-related diseases.
  • 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 in the category of the highest occupations with asbestos-related deaths.
  • Firefighters: Older buildings that catch fire release toxic levels of asbestos fibers into the air. Firefighters responding to emergencies have likely been exposed to dangerous levels of asbestos. Sadly, 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:

This list of high-risk occupations is not exhaustive. Many more occupations could have used hidden asbestos that unknowingly exposed workers.

People employed in these high-risk occupations are tragically still at risk today because they may be exposed to old asbestos-based products that remain in older buildings and worksites. Thankfully, there are protocols in place that allow professional asbestos remediation companies to handle the demolition or renovation of asbestos-filled structures.

Occupational Safety and Health Asbestos Regulations

Though asbestos manufacturers did their best to hide the truth about their products’ health risks and cover up their negligence, eventually the undisputable 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 adjust the maximum allowable concentration of asbestos in the workplace by reducing it over time.

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 refers to custodial and maintenance duties whereby workers may clean up dust and debris.

Talk to Your Employer

Because asbestos is a still a workplace threat today, 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 that all workplaces meet the Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL) of asbestos. Employers must continue monitoring and assessing their workplace activities to ensure that airborne asbestos amounts do not exceed the limit.

The construction and shipyard industries both have specific requirements to control airborne asbestos limits.

All workers should be aware of their rights to a healthy and safe work environment. You are within your right to ask for copies of workplace hazard test results to ensure that your employer is compliant with all regulations. You can also request to see records of any workplace injuries and illnesses.

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Asbestos-Exposed Workers Have Legal Rights

All workers who were exposed to asbestos should be aware of mesothelioma symptoms and report symptoms to their doctor immediately. Mesothelioma is a deadly cancer caused by asbestos exposure. 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.

It has long since been ruled that 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.

To find out if you are eligible for financial compensation to cover your treatment costs and damages, contact The Mesothelioma Justice Network today. Call us at  (888) 360-4215 or request a FREE Mesothelioma Justice Guide to learn more about your next steps as a mesothelioma victim.

View Author and Sources
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Malignant Mesothelioma Mortality — United States 1999-2015” Retrieved from: Accessed on December 6, 2017.
  2. National Institutes of Health, “Occupational exposure to asbestos: population at risk and project mortality -- 1980-2030” Retrieved from: Accessed on December 6, 2017.
  3. United States Department of Labor, “Occupational Safety and Health Administration” Retrieved from: Accessed on December 7, 2017.
  4. OSHA Fact Sheet “Asbestos” Retrieved from: Accessed on December 7, 2017.

Last modified: October 25, 2018