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Written By: Devin Golden

Asbestos Exposure for Construction Workers

Construction work was the highest-risk occupation for asbestos exposure. The mineral asbestos helped keep building components such as drywall joint compounds and plasters, roof shingles, floor tiles and more resistant to heat.

Retired LCDR Carl Jewett

Reviewed By

Retired LCDR Carl Jewett

VA-Accredited Claims Agent

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Important Facts About Asbestos Exposure for Construction Workers

  • Asbestos’ durability and strength made it an ideal component of roof shingles, wallboards, siding, sheetrock, floor tiles, bricks, drywall joint compounds and more.
  • One study found nearly 150 cases of construction workers diagnosed with mesothelioma.
  • Legacy asbestos exposure presents a risk to construction workers today. Legacy asbestos refers to leftover or already-in-place asbestos in old homes and office buildings.

Asbestos in Construction Work: How Construction Workers Were Exposed

Every day, if you leave the house, you’ll probably see people working in construction jobs. They could be building a house, office building, skyscraper, or a public service like road or a highway. Construction work is an important part of American life – either working in this industry or witnessing it as a bystander.

Asbestos was a major part of the construction industry during the 20th century. Think of nearly any component of constructing a building or even a road or highway, and there’s a good chance asbestos was used – at least until the 1980s. During the end of the 20th century, the general public learned asbestos was dangerous and most industries were forced to find alternatives.

The mineral’s durability and strength made it an ideal component of roof shingles, wallboards, siding, sheetrock, ceiling and floor tiles, acoustical plasters , drywall joint compounds and more. As a fire-resistant substance, asbestos was used for steel beams and columns in multistory buildings, plus cement in pipes and fireplaces. Household appliances, such as toasters and baking ovens and even hairdryers, also included asbestos to protect from fires.

All of these uses protected buildings, both commercial and residential, from fire damage and quick degradation. However, the construction workers who handled or worked around asbestos were not protected from the mineral’s capability to cause cancer.

How Asbestos Causes Mesothelioma for Construction Workers

Asbestos has a flaky texture. Tiny, unseen-to-the-naked-eye fibers can break off and enter the air, contaminating the oxygen that enters your body. These fragments are sharp, and their pointed edges are like razor blades for your body’s tissue cells.

Once inhaled or swallowed, these asbestos fibers can travel to the lining of the lungs or abdominal cavity. These linings include layers of tissue that when cancerous forms mesothelioma tumors.

Simply touching asbestos with your fingers or tools could disturb the substance and cause fibers to break away and enter the air. Considering the prevalence of asbestos in construction materials, this interaction was common for decades.

Toward the end of the 20th century, the general public learned that asbestos was dangerous. This knowledge led to reduced use of asbestos in construction jobs, which one would think meant that the risk was eliminated. However, that is a common misconception.

Most, if not all, construction workers knew nothing about these dangers, though. The scientific connection between asbestos and cancer was hidden from them by the manufacturing companies that wished to continue making millions of dollars from selling the product.

Asbestos Abatement and Safety in Construction

Part of construction work may involve repairing or renovating existing buildings. Asbestos abatement is the removal or repair of deteriorating asbestos from a site, usually an old building that contains the mineral. Asbestos was a popular choice up until the 1980s to help construct homes, offices, schools, plants and refineries, hospitals, government buildings and more to resist heat and maintain durability.

As an example, prior to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the North Tower of the World Trade Center buildings consisted of an estimated 300-400 tons of tons of asbestos, according to The National Resources Defense Council.

Asbestos abatement workers are a specific type of profession and this type of work should not be done by homeowners or regular construction workers.

When asbestos abatement workers arrive at a construction site where asbestos is present, they will first inspect the area. Asbestos is only dangerous when it is disturbed and breaks apart, which means the mineral is not harmful when it’s encompassed within a mixture. However, asbestos can be disturbed and break apart with the slightest touch, so abatement workers must be experts in carefully removing the mixture from the building.

Any part of a building that’s subject to heat could contain asbestos to prevent damage from overheating. Examples are:

  • Pipe and HVAC duct insulation
  • Popcorn ceiling
  • Roof shingles
  • Vinyl floor tiles
  • Electrical wiring and panels
  • Drywall
  • Household appliances (toaster ovens, wood-burning stoves and wall sockets)
  • Furnaces or chimneys
  • Boilers and water heaters

Construction workers who are not asbestos abatement professionals should never try to remove asbestos on their own during a renovation or repair project. This is a quick way to disturb asbestos and not only expose themselves to the cancerous mineral but also contaminate the work site.

The following are some of the steps involved in asbestos abatement after a work plan is created by a professional:

  • Mark hazardous areas and tell building occupants to leave the building.
  • Identify asbestos-containing building parts through testing
  • Seal air ducts, disable the heating, ventilation and air conditioning system, and secure any areas not being treated with thick plastic sheets.
  • Ventilate the building, if possible, by opening windows and doors.
  • Utilize hand tools and wet methods to remove or repair the asbestos-containing materials.
  • Use low-pressure equipment instead of water sprays, jets, saws, drills or other tools that may spread loose asbestos fibers.
  • Use special vacuums to minimize the dispersing of asbestos fibers during the work.
  • Place and remove the asbestos-containing materials in sealed waste disposal bags, which are removed through a decontamination unit and decontamination chamber.
  • Remove containment barriers and perform final cleaning tasks, such as vacuuming.
  • Conduct air quality testing based on state and federal requirements to ensure the air in the building is safe for occupants.
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Rates of Mesothelioma Among Construction Workers

Construction workers rank high on the list of occupations leading to mesothelioma. In fact, it’s considered the top occupation excluding work in the military or building ships.

Researchers at Georgetown University and Duke University compiled a list of the top occupations linked to mesothelioma cases. They found 1,445 total cases linked to occupational asbestos exposure, and construction workers were third on the list behind shipbuilders and U.S. Navy veterans. There were 134 documented cases of mesothelioma where the patient was a construction worker many years before their diagnosis.

Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Florida, listed this occupation as one of the most at risk for mesothelioma. In one study conducted among workers in Italy, more than 25% of the 952 analyzed mesothelioma cases involved construction workers.

Legacy Asbestos Exposure for Construction Workers

Despite the drop in the use of asbestos during the 1980s, construction workers in the 1990s, 2000s and even in this decade are at risk of mesothelioma. The reason is “legacy asbestos.”

Legacy asbestos refers to uses of asbestos from the 20th century that have not been removed or replaced. Old homes and office buildings likely have asbestos mixtures hiding in walls, floorboards, ceiling tiles, roof shingles, appliances, electrical sockets, insulation and more. Any renovations or construction work may reveal these asbestos mixtures and disturb the frail fragments, which can contaminate the air and put workers at risk.

Any renovation or demolition projects could expose construction workers to the deadly mineral. For instance, remodeling an old home often could involve replacing roof shingles, drywall, sheetrock and other construction aspects that likely used asbestos. Knocking down a wall will certainly disturb any asbestos present and send many loose fibers into the air. Demolishing an old building will do the same.

An example of legacy asbestos in construction work is old asbestos cement pipes. A study conducted by Occupational Knowledge International and published in the Annals of Work Exposure and Health revealed that there is approximately 600,000 miles of underground asbestos water pipes in the United States. Water utility workers often replace these pipes as part of ongoing projects. When asbestos cement pipes are cut during utility projects, workers are exposed to more than 50 times the amount of asbestos that OSHA set as the permissible exposure limit.

Legal Options for Construction Workers With Mesothelioma

Mesothelioma Guide can help you understand your legal options and connect you with the best treatment specialists for your mesothelioma diagnosis. Construction workers deserve compensation for their asbestos diseases, particularly because asbestos manufacturing companies knew asbestos was dangerous yet continued to promote the use of the mineral.

Contact our patient advocates for help.
Email either of our patient advocates — Karen Ritter, RN (karen@mesotheliomaguide.com) or Carl Jewett (cjewett@mesotheliomaguide.com) — to get more information.

Sources & Author

  1. Malignant Mesothelioma and Occupational Exposure to Asbestos: a clinicopathological correlation of 1445 Cases. National Library of Medicine. Retrieved from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12036093/. Accessed: 02/13/2023.
  2. Who Is at Risk of Exposure to Asbestos? Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Regsitry. Retrieved from: https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/csem/asbestos/who_is_at_risk.html. Accessed: 06/26/2023.
  3. Study Reveals Asbestos Exposure in Construction. ForConstructionPros. Retrieved from: https://www.forconstructionpros.com/business/article/22884270/occupational-knowledge-international-ok-international-study-reveals-asbestos-exposure-in-construction. Accessed: 01/23/2024.
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.