Aluminum Plants

Summary

Aluminum is one of the most common materials used in metal fabrication. It's incorporated everywhere from household appliances to spacecraft. Aluminum is a post-transition metal, meaning it needs to be refined or smelted from ore.

Bauxite ore is the source for aluminum and its transition from raw to finished product required high heat and a considerable amount of electricity. At one time, aluminum plants used asbestos products throughout the facility. This exposed aluminum plant workers to airborne asbestos fibers.

Asbestos was considered the perfect material for aluminum plants. It had high insulating properties and was extremely fire resistant. Asbestos was non-corrosive and essentially non-reactive.  It also didn’t conduct electricity, making it ideal for protecting the miles of high-voltage electrical lines typically found in aluminum plants.

Aluminum plants incorporated asbestos as a transite into many materials. Transite means “an additive,” as asbestos rarely appeared as a raw product in aluminum plants. Workers usually added asbestos to cement powder and sprayed it as an insulation coating on ducts and reduction coils used in the aluminum manufacturing plant. Aluminum smelting required electrically heated cells that reached 1,760 degrees Fahrenheit (960 Celsius).

Other parts of aluminum plants used asbestos materials. Asbestos insulation coated exterior walls and ceilings. Chemically-resistant work surfaces and countertops contained asbestos. Asbestos fabrics were even made into workers’ safety protective clothing.

Aluminum Plant Workers and Asbestos Exposure

Tens of thousands worked in America’s aluminum smelting plants. Asbestos was a primary construction additive in building products from 1920 to 1980. It was prevalent throughout all American aluminum plants which exposed every worker to some form of asbestos.

MJN Brief

The most common asbestos form used in aluminum plants was chrysotile. At one time, chrysotile was termed “good asbestos” and considered “environmentally friendly.” Health risks from asbestos exposure were identified back in the 1930s, but many asbestos producers and product manufacturers failed to disclose potential dangers.

 

It is true that chrysotile asbestos is less harmful than amphibole asbestos. Chrysotile asbestos fibers are serpentine-shaped and softer than the straight, hard amphibole shards. Some aluminum plant component used amphibole asbestos but not to the extent of chrysotile.  It is also true that both asbestos forms are relatively safe when stable.

The real danger of asbestos exposure for aluminum plant workers happened when workers manipulated asbestos products. Asbestos is a soft material that becomes brittle when dry. This fragile condition worsens with age. When asbestos gets old, it crumbles easily or turns friable. Workers using asbestos products would release tiny fragments or fiber particles.

Asbestos fibers are extraordinarily light. They floated into nearly-invisible dust clouds that filled the aluminum plant environments with millions of microscopic particles. Every worker in the vicinity of these airborne asbestos fibers inhaled or ingested them. It was an atmosphere impossible to escape.

Some of the aluminum plant workers experiencing asbestos exposure included:

  • Line workers.
  • Electricians and plumbers.
  • Power generator operators.
  • Quality control supervisors.
  • Mobile equipment operators.
  • Laboratory technicians.
  • Office and clerical staff.
  • Maintenance personnel.

It is fair to say that every aluminum plant worker employed before the 1980s suffered asbestos exposure. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) knew that asbestos fibers were a cancer-causing carcinogen. Asbestos-containing materials (ACM) were phased out by the mid-80s but, by then, workers’ health damage was considerable, and many had already developed mesothelioma.

Aluminum Plant Workers and Mesothelioma

Mesothelioma is a deadly cancer, with it’s sole cause coming from exposure to asbestos. Aluminum plant workers who inhaled asbestos fibers had tiny shards impaled in their lung lining which is called the mesothelium. Asbestos fibers are impossible to expel. These irritants remained permanently in the mesothelium and created scar tissue.

It takes decades to develop mesothelioma. Cases can take anywhere from 10 to 50 years to turn malignant, creating fatal lung tumors. Many aluminum plant workers had no idea about the dangers of asbestos exposure. Tragically, many plant operators and asbestos product producers did know. Today, these offenders are being held accountable.

Compensation for Aluminum Plant Workers with Mesothelioma

If you’re an aluminum plant worker who developed mesothelioma from workplace asbestos exposure, you are likely entitled compensation to cover lost income, medical expenses and personal injury damages. Families can also claim damages on behalf of family members who developed mesothelioma, as well as filing wrongful death lawsuits.