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Written By: Devin Golden

Asbestos Exposure for Carpenters

The construction industry utilized asbestos and asbestos-containing materials in many aspects. Carpenters play a key role in construction projects, as they are responsible for measuring, cutting, shaping, and finishing the wood, metal or materials used on site. Anyone working as a carpenter on a construction site during the 20th century was at risk of exposure to asbestos.

Retired LCDR Carl Jewett

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Retired LCDR Carl Jewett

VA-Accredited Claims Agent

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Important Facts About Asbestos Exposure for Carpenters

  • Carpenters are essential to the construction industry as they perform a wide range of job duties. They measure, mark, cut, shape, fit, and finish wood, plastic, metal and other materials.
  • Many of the materials used in construction included asbestos during the 20th century to protect from overheating or fires. Carpenters often worked on construction sites, where large amounts of asbestos exposure occurred from the mineral’s use in plumbing, drywall installation, furnace and boiler insulation, and more.
  • Numerous studies connect carpenters to regular occupational asbestos exposure and an uptick in cases of mesothelioma cancer.

What is Carpentry Work?

Carpentry is a skilled trade involving working with wood to construct, install, and repair various structures and objects. Carpenters utilize their expertise in cutting, shaping, joining, and finishing wood materials to create functional and aesthetically pleasing results. Carpentry encompasses a wide range of tasks, from framing buildings and installing fixtures to crafting custom furniture and performing renovations.

In construction, carpenters play a crucial role in building structures such as houses, commercial buildings, and infrastructure. They work from architectural blueprints and plans, taking measurements and transforming raw materials into components like walls, roofs, floors, and frameworks. 

Carpenters use a variety of tools, including saws, drills, chisels, planes, and measuring instruments to accurately shape and assemble the wooden elements. They must have a deep understanding of structural integrity, joinery techniques, and building codes to ensure the stability and safety of the constructed structures.

The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics reported around 1 million carpenters in the U.S. in 2018. The occupation is growing, too, with an expected 8% increase from 2018 to 2028.

How Were Carpenters Exposed to Asbestos?

Asbestos is fire-resistant, cheap to produce and durable, which made the mineral commonplace in construction components, especially for industrial buildings (such as refineries and plants). For most of the 20th century, everything from floor tiles to pipe insulation and drywall joint compound to furnace insulation was built with asbestos.

Asbestos Hazards in Carpentry and Woodwork

During construction work, carpenters were near plumbers, electricians, drywallers and boiler technicians, all of which handled asbestos directly and would have unknowingly exposed other trades, such as carpenters, to asbestos. The close proximity of the construction trades means carpenters up until the 1980s were at risk of bystander exposure to the deadly mineral. Some carpenters may have done drywall installation work, which means they likely handled the drywall joint compound, which is a mud-like mixture that often included asbestos.

During the 20th century, many U.S. carpenters weren’t provided the appropriate Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) and the dust masks some trades used failed to filter the asbestos fibers. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration didn’t update its outdated PPE guidelines until 1994. These ineffective safety measures persisted for decades, which is why so many U.S. carpenters later developed mesothelioma.

Due to the use of asbestos on construction sites and the lack of protective equipment, numerous studies label carpentry as one of the most notorious occupations for asbestos exposure. Asbestos, a naturally occurring mineral, is the only cause of mesothelioma. Daily exposure to this substance put many 20th-century carpenters at severe risk of developing mesothelioma.

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Legacy Asbestos Exposure for Carpenters

While asbestos is no longer used in new construction projects, carpenters today still face an issue: legacy asbestos. This term refers to asbestos still present in old buildings, such as refineries or manufacturing plants.

“Asbestos is no longer used in construction, but is found in tile floors, ceilings, boiler rooms and around insulated pipes in older buildings,” a Pennsylvania newspaper article from 1990 states.

Any carpenters tasked with repairing these buildings could face a threat of legacy asbestos exposure, especially if other trades are on site and disturbing legacy asbestos in the building.

Carpenters should prepare for loose fibers by wearing protective gear. They should cover their nose and mouth and beware of asbestos dust attaching to their clothes. Awareness of the danger can help carpenters take safety measures to protect themselves. It also helps protect anyone they interact with, including their work colleagues, family and friends.

Mesothelioma Cancer Among Carpenters

Asbestos in mineral form is composed of many microscopic, sharp and delicate fibers. When asbestos is disturbed, the strands separate from the original source and float in the air. Carpenters working in the proximity of disturbed asbestos could inhale or swallow these sharp fibers, which can irritate cells within the body. This irritation can cause cells to mutate, which forms tumors and cancer.

Mesothelioma is a rare cancer forming in the lining of the lungs or abdominal cavity. Only around 2,500 cases are diagnosed in the U.S. each year, but most involve people who worked occupations involving regular asbestos exposure.

In 1992, the British Journal of Cancer reported 93 known mesothelioma cases involving carpenters in Great Britain. The publication also said carpenters faced the most considerable asbestos exposure risk of all construction jobs.

“Preliminary analysis showed that the risk was highest for carpenters and higher for plumbers, electricians and painters than for other construction workers,” the report stated.

The International Journal of Epidemiology reported the same: Carpenters faced the highest risk of regular occupational asbestos exposure during the 20th century.

In the United States, carpentry was considered “an extremely hazardous trade” for decades largely due to asbestos exposure. An article published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine in 1997 showed proof of carpenters’ elevated risk of asbestos-related diseases. There were 121 members of the U.S. Carpenters’ Union who passed away due to mesothelioma from 1987-1990.

Help for Carpenters With Mesothelioma

By the 1980s, most of the American commercial industry found alternatives to asbestos. Even so, mesothelioma has a decades-long latency period. This cancer often takes 20-50 years to develop. So carpenters who were exposed in the 1970s or 1980s may just be starting to notice mesothelioma symptoms.

If you worked in carpentry and developed mesothelioma — or you have a loved one who fits this description — contact our team. Our patient advocate and registered nurse, Karen Ritter, helps carpenters who have developed this cancer. Email her at karen@mesotheliomaguide.com with any questions about how your occupation led to your mesothelioma.

Sources & Author

  1. Occupational, domestic and environmental mesothelioma risks in the British population: a case–control study. British Journal of Cancer. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2669989/. Accessed: 05/01/2020.
  2. Past and current asbestos exposure and future mesothelioma risks in Britain: The Inhaled Particles Study (TIPS). International Journal of Epidemiology. Retrieved from: https://academic.oup.com/ije/article/47/6/1745/4925430. Accessed: 05/01/2020.
  3. Mortality of Carpenters’ Union Members Employed in the U.S. Construction or Wood Products Industries, 1987-1990. American Journal of Industrial Medicine. Retrieved from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/8914714/. Accessed: 05/04/2020.
  4. Personal Protective Equipment for General Industry. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Retrieved from: https://www.osha.gov/laws-regs/federalregister/1994-04-06. Accessed: 05/04/2020.
  5. Carpenters. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Retrieved from: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/construction-and-extraction/carpenters.htm. Accessed: 05/01/2020.
  6. Carpenters Build on Knowledge of Asbestos. The Morning Call. Retrieved from: https://www.mcall.com/news/mc-xpm-1990-01-13-2735026-story.html. Accessed: 05/01/2020
Devin Golden

About the Writer, Devin Golden

Devin Golden is a content writer for Mesothelioma Guide. He produces mesothelioma-related content on various mediums, including the Mesothelioma Guide website and social media channels. Devin's objective is to translate complex information regarding mesothelioma into informative, easily absorbable content to help patients and their loved ones.