Written By: Camryn Keeble

Occupational Asbestos Exposure

Exposure to asbestos most often occurs at work. People who worked high-risk trades during the 20th century likely experienced occupational asbestos exposure, a phenomenon that put millions of Americans in danger of mesothelioma.

Retired LCDR Carl Jewett

Reviewed By

Retired LCDR Carl Jewett

VA-Accredited Claims Agent

Retired LCDR Carl Jewett

Reviewed By

Retired LCDR Carl Jewett

VA-Accredited Claims Agent


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Important Facts About Occupational Asbestos Exposure

  • The top three occupations linked to mesothelioma are ship builders, U.S. Navy members and construction workers.
  • Occupational asbestos exposure is the cause of most male mesothelioma cases.
  • The average age of people with mesothelioma due to occupational exposure is 67.
  • Of the main types of mesothelioma, occupational asbestos exposure results in pleural mesothelioma 90% of the time.

The Most Common Form of Asbestos Exposure

Occupational asbestos exposure accounts for the majority of asbestos diseases, including mesothelioma. Numerous scientific sources attribute on-the-job exposure as the main culprit in the rise of United States mesothelioma cases.

The Departments of Pathology at Georgetown University and Duke University conducted a study of 1,445 malignant mesothelioma cases. Approximately 90% were due to occupational exposure. The remaining 10% were mostly from secondary asbestos exposure.

A separate, global study analyzed the frequency of mesothelioma from occupational asbestos exposure. In 2019, approximately 92% of all mesothelioma deaths were attributed to occupational exposure. The United States reported the highest number of mesothelioma deaths in the world.

The three jobs with the most cases were:

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U.S. Navy members

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Construction workers

Asbestos was valued the military and construction industry and in the military. It had the reputation of a “wonder material” due to its heat resistance, durability and inexpensive price tag. Asbestos coatings and sealants acted as an insulation material around electrical wiring, pipes, floorboards, roof tiles and more.

It was also cheap to produce and purchase, making it worth adding to insulate any material involved in producing or transferring heat. It also could guard against wires or other building parts from catching fire.

Unfortunately, asbestos is also a carcinogen. Although it is durable, if disturbed or decayed, it can break apart and release sharp fragments into the air. Workers handling asbestos or working near it would unknowingly breathe in the particles, putting them at risk of disease.

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Find out where you may have been exposed to asbestos

A nation wide list of sites where you or a loved one may have come in contact with asbestos.

People At Risk, Type of Mesothelioma and Survival Trends

Mesothelioma primarily affects males, largely because men held jobs at risk of asbestos exposure. According to a study published by Translational Oncology, men account for 93% of occupational exposure cases.

Mesothelioma affects elderly people the most, as the disease has an extensive latency period, which means it can take 20-50 years to form. The average age of people with mesothelioma due to occupational exposure is 67. This means a construction worker in their 30s or 40s who was exposed to asbestos likely won’t be diagnosed until after retirement.

Occupational exposure to asbestos usually leads to mesothelioma of the pleura (a thin lining near your lungs):

Occupational Exposure Chart

Pleural Mesothelioma Data

Pleural mesothelioma occurs in 90.5% of occupational exposure cases.

Peritoneal Mesothelioma Data

The other type of mesothelioma, which forms in the peritoneum (lining of your abdominal cavity), accounts for 9.5% of occupational exposure cases.

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The survival rates are poor for occupational exposure cases. The median survival length is 19 months, largely due to the challenges of treating pleural mesothelioma.

Top Occupations at Risk of Asbestos Exposure

Researchers at Georgetown University and Duke University compiled a list of the top industries linked to mesothelioma by analyzing 1,445 cases of mesothelioma. To determine the link, researchers found the person’s prior primary occupation and studied which industries were linked to asbestos exposure and mesothelioma cancer.

Top 10 asbestos exposure industries of 1,445 mesothelioma cases


Researchers further segmented the 10 industries by specific occupations associated with asbestos exposure and mesothelioma:

  • Pipefitters or plumbers
    (187 cases)
  • Boilermakers
    (112 cases)
  • Maintenance workers
    (90 cases)
  • Machinists
    (89 cases)
  • Electricians
    (81 cases)
  • Sheet metal workers
    (22 cases)

Other jobs with risks of  asbestos exposure also have high rates of mesothelioma. One study listed carpentry (a type of construction job) as the top occupation linked to mesothelioma. More occupations with risks fo exposure include painters, drywallers, insulators, clay and ceramic artists, bakers, dentists, jewelry makers, hairdressers and HVAC workers.

Some occupations, such as school teachers, face asbestos exposure due to their interior work setting and the legacy asbestos in schools. One teacher from Philadelphia developed mesothelioma after multiple decades of teaching in asbestos-ridden school buildings.

How Asbestos Exposure Happened for At-Risk Occupations

Exposure to asbestos doesn’t occur the same way for each occupation. Here is an overview of how each of the most at-risk jobs involved handling asbestos or working near asbestos.

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Shipyard Workers

Ships catching fire at sea was a safety concern for the entire crew. Asbestos was an easy solution to prevent this risk from becoming a reality, so shipbuilders used asbestos when constructing and assembling the many parts of Navy ships, especially in the engine rooms.

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Navy Veterans

Navy veterans served aboard these asbestos-filled ships. They slept in asbestos rooms and worked in boiler and engine rooms and other asbestos-covered areas of the ship.

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Automobile Mechanics

Brake linings were built with chrysotile asbestos starting in the 1940s. Manufacturers used this material to prevent vehicles from catching fire. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, it is nearly impossible to identify asbestos dust on brakes or clutches.

However, the braking process causes asbestos dust to build up in the wheel well. This dust can include fragments of disturbed asbestos from pressure applied to brakes. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, it is nearly impossible to identify asbestos dust on brakes or clutches.

Mechanics installing new brakes were regularly exposed to asbestos until the 1980s. Since many old vehicles are often brought in for repairs, auto mechanics continued to be exposed in the 1990s and 2000s when replacing worn-down brakes.

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Construction Workers

Construction workers are at high risk for asbestos exposure due to the many building materials that contained asbestos. The goal is to construct buildings that resist storms, fires and other catastrophic events to also protect the people inside and around the buildings.

The solution was asbestos due to its durability and heat resistance. These qualities made it the perfect material for constructing buildings, homes and other structures. However, the widespread use of asbestos in construction created health risks for workers. They handled asbestos materials directly, often leading to weightless sharp fibers floating in the air.

In 1990, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported nearly 300 mesothelioma cases among insulation workers in the United States and Canada.

Some of the construction jobs that handled asbestos were:

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Many buildings were constructed with asbestos mixtures to add durability to tiles, electrical wiring, shingles, paint and more. When fires occur in these buildings, the asbestos is disturbed and damaged. This splinters small pieces of asbestos from the mixture. Firefighters attempting to save people and put out blazes are often breathing in toxic air, including these sharp fibers. Additionally, firefighters often wore jackets insulated with asbestos.

The 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center is the most publicized example of asbestos exposure for firefighters. The skyscrapers were built with tons of asbestos, which led to Ground Zero’s rubble being filled with asbestos.

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Electrical Workers

Asbestos in the electrical industry was an afterthought for decades. Again, asbestos is fire‑resistant, so any opportunities to protect wires or switchboards from catching fire were a necessity.

The main use of asbestos in electrical work was for insulation around:

  • Electrical wiring
  • Control boards
  • Panels
  • Switch gears
  • Explosion-proof compounds
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Machinists operate machines or use hand tools to modify metal, plastic or wood parts. They also repair and assemble these machines, many of which require heat.

These machines, which were made with asbestos, often grind parts together. This leads to a cloud of dust, which includes splintered asbestos fibers. Machinists also use their tools on objects built with asbestos, which contaminates the air.

Machinists include railroad workers. One study found 42 mesothelioma cases among former railroad machinists.

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Hairdressers and Hair Stylists

Since asbestos is a heat‑resistant mineral, it protected some items from overheating or catching fire. Hair dryers, for instance, were made with asbestos in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. This put many hairdressers and hair stylists at risk of asbestos exposure.

According to an article in the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission recalled many hair dryers in 1979 due to asbestos concerns.

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Bakers, Pizza Makers and Pastry Chefs

Baking ovens require extremely high temperatures for proper functioning. These ovens were often lined with asbestos to keep flames inside.

The American Journal of Industrial Medicine found eight cases of bakers, pizza makers and pastry chefs with mesothelioma. Asbestos fibers could loosen and contaminate the air where bakers worked, or even fall onto the food being cooked.

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Plant Workers

Manufacturing plants were common work settings for asbestos exposure. Quite a few plant workers were exposed regularly, such as textile workers, aluminum smelting workers and more.

Textile workers, for instance, turned natural and artificial fibers into yarn to create clothing and household products. These products often were made with asbestos.

Aluminum smelting workers extract aluminum from its oxide, alumina. This requires heat at 1,800 degrees to produce aluminum metal. Since the temperature is so high and high‑voltage electricity is involved, asbestos insulation was used within the plants, on the piping and appliances.

Steel mills melt, mold, and form iron ore and other materials to make iron and steel. They work in hot temperatures due to the extreme heat required to melt, mold, and create steel. Asbestos was often used to manufacture the machinery and equipment used in steel mills.

Chlor-alkali plants also used asbestos – and still do. The chlor-alkali industry is the only one currently still using asbestos. Chlor-alkali plant workers in New York reported regular asbestos exposure through the 1990s, and some former workers have developed cancers like mesothelioma.

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Asbestos was a component of paint for most of the 20th century. It was used as a filler for paint, particularly for shipyard and bridge jobs. The British Journal of Cancer listed painters as one of the most at risk of exposure to asbestos.

History of Occupational Asbestos Exposure in United States

The asbestos industry’s scientists and doctors made the causal link between asbestos and health concerns during the 1930s and 1940s. Despite the warnings of asbestos’ health dangers, companies continued mining for the substance and making products with it for their own financial benefit.

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry estimates that from 1940-1979 an estimated 27 million American workers were exposed to asbestos fibers. This level of widespread exposure is why mesothelioma cases increased during the second half of the 20th century. They’ve continued rising into the 21st century.

The Rise of Asbestos

At the start of the 20th century, the U.S. increased its production and use of asbestos. Companies began utilizing it in automobiles, industrial settings, homes, schools and offices. From the 1920s to the 1960s, the country accounted for up to 83% of worldwide asbestos consumption and use.

World War II caused another increase in asbestos use. The U.S. rapidly produced military ships and aircraft. This led to the U.S. Navy having the largest fleet in the world.

The shipbuilders who constructed these vessels depended on asbestos to protect them from fires at sea. These workers were exposed regularly to the substance. Tons of asbestos were hauled to shipyards and applied throughout the new Navy fleet. The people affected include:

Navy veterans who served aboard these ships faced a higher risk than most Americans. More than one-third of people with mesothelioma are military veterans.

Reliance on asbestos continued after World War II ended, largely due to the substance’s cheap and durable qualities. In 1973, the United States produced 136,000 tons of asbestos.

The widespread existence of asbestos in America continued until 1980, which is why so many people who worked in specific occupations develop mesothelioma later.

Former Commercial and Industrial Uses of Asbestos

  • Boilers and heating systems
  • Cement pipes
  • Automotive parts (like brake pads and clutches)
  • Roofing and flooring materials (such as shingles and tiles)
  • Chemical containers
  • Heat-protective pads
  • Electrical wires
  • Adhesives and sealants
  • Insulation products
  • Paper products
  • Drywall
  • Paints

Importation of Asbestos

Mining of asbestos stopped in the U.S. in 2002, with the closure of the country’s last asbestos mine. However, the country has not outlawed the use of asbestos. In fact, the U.S. still imports asbestos — around 300 tons in 2020, 170 tons in 2019 and 750 tons in 2018.

Most imported asbestos is for the chlor-alkali industry. Decades ago, though, the country imported hundreds of thousands of tons for roofing materials, cement pipes and more. The peak was 1973, when the U.S. imported 803,000 tons of asbestos.

The Decline of Asbestos Use

World War II was a springboard in the U.S. for increasing asbestos production. Asbestos remained in heavy use through the 1960s and into the 1970s. Since the end of the 1970s, approximately 27 million Americans have been exposed to significant amounts of asbestos.

Around the same time as asbestos’ peak production, the asbestos controversy reached public discussion. This caused the production and use of asbestos to drop annually. By 2001, the amount produced lowered to 5,000 tons.

The Beginning of Regulations

Asbestos-containing materials were common until the 1980s. Instances of occupational exposure began declining as working conditions and regulations were established. This caused the subsequent decline of industrial and commercial asbestos use.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is responsible for protecting workers from health hazards by enforcing regulations. The OSHA revealed to the public during the 1970s just how dangerous asbestos is when disturbed. A few years later, the OSHA implemented safety regulations for American workers.

These standards have tremendously decreased occupational exposure to asbestos. However, exposure is still possible if workers are repairing, renovating or maintaining a building that includes asbestos materials.

Occupational Exposure Still a Threat

Asbestos exposure at work remains a risk because of the presence of “legacy asbestos,” which is old asbestos remaining in factories, schools, homes, offices or other structures built during the 20th century. Renovation of parts of buildings containing asbestos can lead to occupational exposure. Office or factory workers can also be exposed due to disturbances to asbestos hidden in walls, floorboards and ceiling tiles.

In March 2024, the EPA banned chrysotile asbestos in the United States. The other five types of asbestos are not banned but remain heavily regulated. Reports state chrysotile asbestos was the only type imported, manufactured, sold, and used at the time of the ban — mostly for diaphragms used in chlor-alkali production.

Today, around 1.3 million American workers are exposed to asbestos through their jobs.

Permissible Exposure Limits

The OSHA established the main occupational protection standard, known as the permissible exposure limit (PEL), for asbestos in 1986. The PEL sets a government limit on the concentration of the substance in any given workspace. This asbestos exposure limit is an average across an extended amount of time, such as eight hours.

Another regulation is excursion limit (EL). The EL sets a maximum exposure amount to asbestos for a short timeframe (30 minutes).

The PEL for asbestos is an average of 0.1 fiber per cubic centimeter over eight hours. The EL is 1.0 asbestos fiber per cubic centimeter over 30 minutes.

Finding Help After a Diagnosis

If you believe your mesothelioma diagnosis was a result of occupational exposure, there is compensation available to help with treatment. Asbestos trust funds have billions of dollars to help compensate mesothelioma patients and are just one form of support.

We can explain further about mesothelioma compensation for victims of occupational asbestos exposure.

Frequently Asked Questions About Occupational Asbestos Exposure

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What occupations currently have the highest risk of asbestos exposure?

The occupations facing the highest risk of asbestos exposure now are asbestos abatement jobs, firefighters and any repair work on automobiles or buildings. Legacy asbestos, meaning asbestos added decades ago that still exists in old structures, is a health hazard today for these occupations. Legacy asbestos is old and easily disturbed.

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Which occupations had the highest risk of asbestos exposure in the past?

Any occupation that involved working with or around asbestos was an at-risk job up until the 1970s. There were quite a lot of these trades, too. The occupations facing the highest risk of exposure during the 20th century were:

    • Military personnel
    • Shipbuilders
    • Construction and insulation workers
    • Pipefitters and plumbers
    • Electricians
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What is the permissible exposure limit for asbestos?

The permissible exposure limit (PEL) for asbestos is 0.1 fiber per cubic centimeter in an eight-hour period. The regulation limits the concentration of asbestos in the air within a workplace. Another regulation, excursion limit, is 1.0 asbestos fiber per cubic centimeter every 30 minutes.

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Can I receive compensation for occupational asbestos exposure?

If you developed mesothelioma due to asbestos exposure, you can seek compensation through various legal measures. You were almost certainly exposed without any warning or knowledge about the dangers of asbestos. In most cases, the negligent parties are the asbestos manufacturing companies, not your employer.

Sources & Author

  1. Who Is at Risk of Exposure to Asbestos? Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Retrieved from: https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/csem/csem.asp?csem=29&po=7. Accessed: 08/11/20.
  2. Malignant Mesothelioma and Occupational Exposure to Asbestos: an Analysis of 1445 Cases. British Occupational Hygiene Society. Retrieved from: https://academic.oup.com/annweh/article/46/suppl_1/150/317508. Accessed: 08/11/20.
  3. Global burden of mesothelioma attributable to occupational asbestos exposure in 204 countries and territories: 1990-2019. Journal of Cancer Research and Clinical Oncology. Retrieved from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/38806867/. Accessed: 06/03/2024.
  4. Asbestos. Centers for Disease Control. Retrieved from: http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/asbestos/. Accessed: 10/10/18.
  5. Asbestos. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Retrieved from: https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/asbestos/. Accessed: 10/10/18.
  6. Exposure to Asbestos. Penn Medicine. Retrieved from: https://www.pennmedicine.org/cancer/types-of-cancer/mesothelioma/asbestos-cancer/exposure-to-asbestos. Accessed: 08/11/2020.
  7. Worldwide Asbestos Supply and Consumption Trends from 1900 through 2003. United States Department of the Interior Geological Survey. Retrieved from: https://pubs.usgs.gov/circ/2006/1298/c1298.pdf. Accessed: 08/11/2020.
  8. Asbestos Fact Sheet. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Retrieved from: https://www.osha.gov/Publications/OSHA3507.pdf. Accessed: 08/11/2020.
  9. Changing Pattern in Malignant Mesothelioma Survival. Translational Oncology. Retrieved from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1936523314001363. Accessed: 08/12/2020.
  10. Malignant pleural mesothelioma in bakers and pastry cooks. American Journal of Industrial Medicine. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11598986. Accessed: 10/08/19.
  11. Case report: peritoneal mesothelioma from asbestos in hairdryers. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4273513/. Accessed: 07/17/19.
  12. Mesothelioma among machinists in railroad and other industries. American Journal of Industrial Medicine. Retrieved from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/6869375/. Accessed: 09/03/2020.
  13. Malignant mesothelioma in a cohort of asbestos insulation workers: clinical presentation, diagnosis, and causes of death. BMJ Journals Occupational & Environmental Medicine. Retrieved from: https://oem.bmj.com/content/45/3/182. Accessed: 09/20/2023.
  14. Malignant mesothelioma in a cohort of asbestos insulation workers: clinical presentation, diagnosis, and causes of death. British Journal of Industrial Medicine. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1007965/. Accessed: 03/04/2020.
Camryn Keeble image

About the Writer, Camryn Keeble

Camryn Keeble is a content writer and editor for Mesothelioma Guide. She creates informative content to educate mesothelioma patients and their loved ones on news, treatments and more. She also works diligently to raise awareness of the dangers of asbestos exposure and the effects of mesothelioma.