Stationary engineers operate, maintain, and repair boiler and mechanical systems. They work in any large facility including power plants, industrial factories, petro-chemical plants, and government facilities. Their work brings them into contact not only with boiler systems, but also with other heating systems, diesel engines, generators, and electrical systems. All of these facilities and systems within the facilities are areas that have traditionally used large amounts of asbestos. If a boiler, which traditionally had asbestos insulation sprayed on it, needed repair, that job would fall to the stationary engineer.
Electrical and mechanical systems also made heavy use of asbestos insulation and asbestos-containing compounds, and diesel engines have only recently begun using gaskets that don’t have asbestos-containing parts. People working as stationary engineers from the 1940s until the early 1980s were at high risk of being occupationally exposed to asbestos and asbestos dust on an almost daily basis. There is enough asbestos left in workplaces even today that most stationary engineers have to get specialized training on dealing with asbestos that they may encounter as part of their work obligations.
Asbestos is a fibrous mineral that separates easily. The fibers are flexible and capable of being woven into cloth. Asbestos is lightweight, and provides excellent insulation against noise, electricity, and heat. It is also chemically inert and entirely fireproof. Asbestos was used by the ancient Romans and Greeks. Even the Egyptians used it to wrap the bodies of deceased pharaohs. The ancients noticed that slaves who worked with asbestos had breathing problems and tended to die at a younger age than other slaves. In the United States research in the early 1900s confirmed that asbestos caused respiratory problems. The research continued and by the 1930s, medical journals were being filled with articles about asbestos causing cancer.
All the dangers were ignored, however, as asbestos use continued to increase up through the early 1970s. Finally in the mid-1970s regulations began being implemented and enforced to limit occupational exposure to asbestos. The danger of asbestos is from the dust entering the lungs and tissue of a person who inhales it. Initially the asbestos causes irritation of the tissue that eventually leads to scarring. Asbestos is also a carcinogen. It causes several forms of asbestos cancer, the worst of which is malignant mesothelioma.
Mesothelioma is a cancer of the membrane that surrounds the lungs and lines the chest and abdominal cavity. Like most asbestos diseases it has a long latency period of up to 40 years. When the first symptom does show up, it is usually a mild difficulty in breathing after exercise. The symptom is so nonspecific and insignificant that most people don’t realize it is related to a serious medical condition. As the disease progresses the breathing difficulty becomes more pronounced, and is accompanied by increasingly severe chest pain. If mesothelioma is detected early enough it can sometimes be surgically removed along with the surrounding tissue. If the cancer has already metastasized, or spread, surgery is a less viable option. In the later stages doctors generally rely on chemotherapy and radiation treatments, sometimes in conjunction with surgery, to slow the growth of the cancer. Mesothelioma is highly resistant to most anti-cancer drugs, and there is no cure for the disease at this time. Although medical treatments are improving rapidly, few people live more than two years after they are initially diagnosed with the disease.