Most advances were excellent breakthroughs for the steel industry. Unfortunately, introducing one material in steel mills proved highly dangerous and that was asbestos.
Steel mills were hot and dirty environments. Smelting raw ore into finished steel products required converting energy into high heat. Naturally, heat in steel mills needed controlling. Scientists and steel engineers once thought asbestos was a wonderful addition to the steel making business, since it provided such amazing heat control. They were dead wrong.
Steel mills used asbestos materials from the 1920s until the 1980s. Every steel mill in America utilized asbestos-containing materials (ACMs). Asbestos was an excellent insulator as it was thermally inert. It didn’t transfer heat well, so high-temperature areas used it extensively.
ACMs were fire resistant. Being stone-based, asbestos fibers are non-combustible. Asbestos fibers are pliable and easy to work with by blending asbestos fibers into other steel making products. Asbestos was also non-corrosive and non-conductive. ACMs wouldn’t rust or conduct electricity. Asbestos was widely available, affordable and inert when added to steel products. This made them more durable.
Airborne Asbestos Exposure in Steel Mills
It seemed there was no drawback to using asbestos materials in steel mills. However, many asbestos producers and suppliers were keeping a dirty secret. Long-term asbestos fiber exposure presented a monstrous potential danger for steel mill workers that were exposed to airborne asbestos particles.
It wasn’t just the producers who were keeping secrets. Many steel mill executives and government officials were also aware of asbestos exposure dangers. The asbestos industry failed steel mill workers. For seven decades, steel mills were an environmental nightmare. Thousands of innocent workers suffered exposure to lethal quantities of airborne asbestos particles.
Mesothelioma Justice Network Brief
By the mid-1980s, authorities took measures to ban asbestos products in all industries. This included steel mills. The U.S. Environmental Agency (EPA) along with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) cooperated to eradicate asbestos from American workplaces. They forced steel mills to stop using ACMs and to begin abatement programs to remove asbestos products. But, by then, the damage was already done.
Thousands of steel mill workers suffered airborne asbestos exposure from ACMs in their workplace. Many steel mill equipment pieces and construction materials contained asbestos.
Asbestos particle sources in steel mills included:
- Liners in steel baking ovens.
- Blankets surrounding steel smelting furnaces.
- Ladle covers.
- Boilers and steam pipes.
- Gaskets in pipe joints.
- Casting containers and hot blast stoves.
- Fireproof walls and separation panels.
- Refractory bricks on hot tops.
- Wall and roof insulation.
- Electric cable covers and breaker box liners.
- Paint, wallboard and finishes.
- Floor and ceiling tiles.
Steel mill workers required protective clothing, especially for those in close contact with hot molten metal. At one time, steel workers wore fire and heat proof gear to shield them from burns and scalds. These at-risk workers donned jackets, pants, coveralls, leggings, aprons, boots, gloves and masks made of fabrics woven from asbestos fibers.
Steel Mill Workers Most At Risk of Asbestos Exposure
Some steel mill workers were at greater risk for asbestos exposure than others. Amounts of asbestos fiber exposure and the duration or time length workers were in an asbestos-filed environment varied from one job to the next. Risk levels for developing mesothelioma also depended on the particular type of asbestos each person worked with.
Steel mill workers with the highest exposure risk were:
- Molten steel pourers and casters.
- Pot operators and tenders.
- Furnace operators and inspectors.
- Pipefitters, boilermakers and plumbers.
- Electricians and mechanical ventilation installers.
- Machine setters, millwrights and welders.
- Supervisors and quality control personnel.
Every steel mill worker exposed to airborne asbestos fibers was in danger of developing the lung disease called mesothelioma. When ACMs were installed and left undisturbed, they were relatively safe. That wasn’t the case in older steel mills. Workers disturbed asbestos every day by drilling, sawing, sanding and shaping ACMs. They also wore asbestos protective equipment that constantly shed asbestos fibers around them.
When steel mill workers inhaled asbestos fibers, the microscopic shards fixed themselves to the lung lining known as the mesothelium. These mineral contaminants don’t break down in human tissue as organic impurities do. Asbestos fibers stay in the mesothelium forever. Eventually, scar tissue forms, and later turns into malignant tumors and mesothelioma.
Compensation for Steel Mill Workers with Mesothelioma
There’s no known cure for advanced mesothelioma. The only just recourse is compensating steel mill workers who developed mesothelioma from workplace asbestos exposure. Money is available to cover medical expenses, lost income and personal injury damages. Families may claim for relatives with mesothelioma as well as sue for wrongful death cases.