The boilermaker profession includes anyone involved in making or maintaining high-pressure, steam-generating equipment. That includes skilled tradespeople working in boiler manufacturing factories, facilities that operate boilers for heat and power as well as maintenance people routinely working around any boiler. It can also be pipefitters and high-pressure welders. Everyone employed in the boilermaker industry when asbestos was used falls into a high-risk group for developing asbestos exposure health problems.
Boiler making is a high skill. It’s a career requiring years of experience to develop proficiency. These ticketed tradespeople work in two distinct groups. Each has their specialties and occupational hazards.
Boiler producers are employed in factories that manufacture boiler tanks and assemblies. For years, asbestos products were the primary insulators used in boiler manufacturing. Everyone in the boiler assembly area handled asbestos material. They were constantly exposed to an environment containing airborne asbestos particles.
Boiler operators work in specific facilities using boilers for steam generation. That can be for energy to drive propulsion equipment, generate electricity and to heat buildings or vessels. Installation, operation and maintenance boilermakers spent their entire careers working on boilers and steam-transferring equipment lined and wrapped with asbestos products. Often, their workplace was enclosed and poorly ventilated. It was the perfect environment for harboring dangerous asbestos fibers.
Asbestos Products Used in Boilermaking
All steam generating equipment uses a boiler or hot water tank as their central energy-generation component. Steam power became mainstream in the mid-1800s. It was used to propel ships, train locomotives, electrical generators and all forms of central heating systems. Fuel sources varied from wood, coal, oil and gas but one thing was common—all boilers produced huge heat volumes that needed insulating and fireproofing.
Asbestos was considered the perfect fire resistance and insulation material. Asbestos does not burn nor transfer heat. From the 1920s to 1980s, asbestos was the main fire and heat protection material used in boilermaking.
These boiler applications used materials containing asbestos:
- Liners on boiler tank interiors
- Outer wraps on boiler tanks
- Floor, ceiling and wall protection in boiler rooms
- Gaskets in joints, seams and access openings
- Insulative pipe wraps on delivery systems
- Adhesives in pipe connections
- Additives to bearings and rollers
- Cement for base pads, supports and acoustic control
Boilermakers and Asbestos Exposure
No profession was more exposed to asbestos than boilermakers. Their entire workspace was an asbestos den. Everything in their complete surroundings used asbestos for heat control. Even boilermakers’ tools and clothing contained asbestos. Back then, asbestos was supposed to be their personal protective equipment.
It’s fair to say when asbestos is properly installed and completely contained, it’s somewhat stable and harmless. But that wasn’t the case in early boiler rooms or on old boiler manufacturing assembly lines. Asbestos-treated parts were continually moving. Workers were constantly exposed to airborne asbestos particles no matter what they were doing.
Asbestos particles become airborne when the parent product is disturbed. Asbestos products are malleable meaning they’re easily twisted or bent. When asbestos is disturbed by installation, maintenance or removal, it becomes friable. That’s the asbestos industry term for easily crumbling and turning to dust. Microscopic and invisible asbestos dust was inhaled by every boilermaker who ever contacted asbestos products.
Even though boilermakers, in general, were among the highest risk groups for asbestos exposure, shipboard boilermakers were at the head of their class. Ships have used steam boilers for several hundred years. Central to every ship was its boiler room that was tight and poorly ventilation. Trained boilermakers and tenders spent their entire day in that dangerous place. For decades, ship boiler and engine rooms were full of asbestos.
There’s strong evidence suggesting the American government put its sailors at a calculated asbestos exposure risk during World War II. After the Pearl Harbor attack, the Roosevelt Administration ramped up warship production. Back then, asbestos use in ship boiler rooms was at its peak. According to a March 1941 government memo, asbestos dangers were well known, but the administration concealed the information fearing ship workers would refuse to work in an asbestos-filled space. They put the war effort ahead of worker safety.
Boilermaker Health Risks
Any person employed in the boilermaking profession before asbestos was banned is at high-risk for health problems. Prolonged exposure to airborne asbestos fibers is the sole cause of asbestos exposure leading to mesothelioma, which is a deadly form of cancer. If you’re in this high-risk group, you are in serious danger of respiratory illness. Even if you’re not, you may know someone who is.
Compensation for Mesothelioma Victims
If you have mesothelioma or any illness related to asbestos exposure, you may be eligible for financial compensation. That applies to any worker, including boilermakers. Monetary settlements are available to cover medical expenses and disability costs. Lawsuits may result in payments for personal injury as well as to relatives for wrongful death claims.