In the construction and building renovation industry, iron workers are among those who risk exposure to asbestos in the course of doing their jobs. Asbestos exposure can cause disabling or fatal diseases such as asbestosis, lung cancer, gastrointestinal cancer and mesothelioma, a form of asbestos cancer that affects the membranes covering the lungs and / or other body organs. From 1990 to 1999, the most frequently listed industry recorded on U.S. death certificates of asbestosis victims age 15 and older was the construction industry, with 24% of death certificates listing construction.
Some iron workers manufacture structural metal pieces in fabricating shops. Others install and maintain iron or steel girders, columns, and other metal materials in the construction and renovation of buildings, bridges, and other structures. They also place and secure metal bars or mesh in concrete forms so as to reinforce the concrete used in roads, buildings, tunnels, and other structures, often positioning the metal fabric while a concrete crew places the concrete. Ornamental ironworkers install stairs, handrails, nonstructural walls and window frames, and other miscellaneous metal after the structural components of the building are in place.
In addition to its well-known use as a fire-retardant and heat insulator, asbestos was also used as a reinforcing or binding agent in plastics and cement.
As such, asbestos was used in building materials including plaster, drywall materials, floor tiles and roofing products, as well as insulation. In addition, because it doesn’t conduct electricity, asbestos was used as an insulator on some heavy machinery. Iron workers in the past could be exposed to asbestos at construction sites because of the asbestos-containing building materials being used. Even after asbestos was phased out of construction materials beginning in the 1980s, iron workers at job sites with older buildings have faced possible asbestos exposure.
In a study published in May, 1996, medical screening was performed on 547 asbestos-exposed iron workers. After accounting for the effects of tobacco use and age, the study found a significant correlation between the length of time the subjects had been members of the iron workers union and the number and severity of asbestos-related disease symptoms, including pleural thickening and pleural plaques, which are often associated with asbestosis and malignant mesothelioma.
Diseases associated with asbestos exposure generally do not appear for 15 or more years after initial exposure, so even people who haven’t worked as an iron worker in many years may still be at risk for developing mesothelioma or another asbestos-related disease. Such workers are urged to discuss their possible asbestos exposure with their doctor and to receive regular check-ups for any signs of asbestos-related disease.