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Written By: Camryn Keeble

Asbestos Exposure for Mine Workers

Mine worker is among some of the high-risk occupations for asbestos exposure. The preparation and working procedures in mining allow for asbestos disturbance and possible contamination. Asbestos forms in the earth’s soil near other minerals of high value, which creates a risk for mine workers. The substance was also often used in construction and manufacturing, which means the equipment and machinery used for mining likely contained asbestos.

Retired LCDR Carl Jewett

Reviewed By

Retired LCDR Carl Jewett

VA-Accredited Claims Agent

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Important Facts About Asbestos Exposure in Mine Workers

  • Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that forms in the earth’s soil. Miners are at high risk of asbestos exposure due to disturbance of the earth during mining procedures.
  • Asbestos is known to contaminate other naturally occurring minerals, which also creates risks for mine workers. The substance they are mining for may contain asbestos.
  • There have been cases of asbestos-related diseases among mine workers, such as asbestosis (lung tissue scarring), mesothelioma and lung cancer.
  • Libby, Montana, is a notable example of asbestos exposure caused by mining. The small town was home to a vermiculite mine contaminated with asbestos.

Occupational Asbestos Exposure in Mining

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral and must be mined and processed for use. The mineral is not a safety hazard when it remains whole. Asbestos becomes dangerous when it is disturbed, causing it to splinter into tiny, microscopic fibers. The nearly invisible asbestos particles can contaminate air, water and soil if disturbed during mining procedures.

In order to establish a mining location, geological surveys are conducted to determine if the site is a viable location for mining a specific substance. Then the site is prepared for mining, which includes clearing plants and trees, establishing roadways, and setting up power supplies, water sources and processing facilities. During mining preparation procedures, there is abundant opportunity for disturbance of asbestos – before the actual mining has even started.

During the mining process, rocks and minerals are removed from the soil for milling and processing. This requires specialized milling equipment and machinery, which repeatedly crushes the rocks to separate the minerals and sends dust and particles flying into the air. 

Asbestos in the Mining Industry

Mining creates a risk for mine workers because the rocks or minerals being mined for and processed may contain asbestos. The naturally occurring mineral has been known to contaminate other natural substances, such as talc and vermiculite. These minerals often form in close proximity to asbestos.

If the rocks or minerals being mined contain asbestos, then toxic asbestos dust is likely polluting the work environment due to milling and processing. The crushing of asbestos-containing rocks sends toxic asbestos dust particles into the air, contaminating the mill’s work environment and exposing anyone in the area.

Another risk for mine workers is that the industrial equipment and machinery used to mill and process these substances may also contain the hazardous substance. Asbestos was often used throughout industrial manufacturing due to its durability and heat resistance. The mineral was commonly incorporated into insulation materials, various construction components, and brake linings, which were typically found at mine sites.

Occupational Safety Regulations for Asbestos in Mining

There are regulations for miners who are in settings with asbestos. Personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks and suits can protect workers from carrying fibers on their work clothes or inhaling fibers while working.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends any asbestos workers, including miners, wear disposable coveralls, a head cover, and foot covers “made of a synthetic fabric which does not allow asbestos fibers to pass through.” Miners should not take home contaminated clothing to avoid secondhand exposure for their family members.

Asbestos Health Risks Among Mine Workers

Due to the likelihood of asbestos contamination or asbestos disturbance at mine sites, mine workers are among some of the high-risk occupations for asbestos exposure.

Asbestos is not dangerous when it is intact within the earth or another rock. The danger arises when asbestos is disturbed and fragments of the mineral break apart from the source. Loose asbestos fibers are sharp and invisible to the eye.

If inhaled or swallowed, they can cause serious health issues, such as lung cancer, lung tissue scarring or mesothelioma. These are the health effects of asbestos exposure in mining and other occupations.

Asbestos-Related Diseases Among Miners: Case Studies and Statistics

A study published in the National Library of Medicine analyzed the health of former asbestos mineworkers. There were 149 clinical evaluations, with 131 men. Some were clinically diagnosed with asbestos disease, while other participants were determined to have a disease during an autopsy. The results showed the following asbestos-related diseases among miners:

  • 129 had asbestosis (lung tissue scarring)
  • 31 had mesothelioma
  • 25 had lung cancer

Some of the former mine workers had multiple asbestos-related diseases.

Mesothelioma Among Mine Workers

Mesothelioma is a rare cancer caused only by exposure to asbestos. This cancer is diagnosed less than 3,000 times in the United States each year. 

If microscopic asbestos fibers are inhaled or swallowed, they can travel through the body and become lodged in thin linings surrounding the lungs or the abdomen. The thin linings are made up of mesothelial cells. When irritated by a foreign substance, such as asbestos, the healthy cells can mutate and form into mesothelioma tumors. 

There are two main types of mesothelioma: pleural mesothelioma and peritoneal mesothelioma. Mesothelioma of the pleura affects the lungs, while mesothelioma of the peritoneum affects the abdomen. Pleural mesothelioma accounts for nearly 80% of all cases, and peritoneal mesothelioma typically accounts for 15%-20%. There are two other types of mesothelioma, but they are extremely rare.

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Mining Leads to Mass Asbestos Exposure in Libby, Montana

Libby is a small American town in Montana with a population under 3,000, according to the 2021 census. Unfortunately, the small town has been deeply affected by environmental asbestos exposure due to the vermiculite mine that operated for 66 years.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), during the operation of the Libby vermiculite mine, it likely produced 80% of the world’s vermiculite supply. This substance was used in building insulation and as a soil conditioner, which controls erosion and improves soil properties. However, Libby’s vermiculite was contaminated with asbestos, which causes serious health issues for mineworkers and town residents.

Due to the mass production of asbestos in Libby, the EPA found overwhelming amounts of asbestos contamination in the environment. For instance, the EPA’s investigation revealed asbestos was present in indoor and outdoor air, vermiculite insulation and bulk materials, indoor dust, soil, water, animal and fish tissue and various other means. 

A study analyzed the deaths of 752 Libby mine workers and found:

  • 13.2% died from lung cancer
  • 2% died from mesothelioma
  • 5.3% died from asbestosis

The average duration of employment was:

  • 7.1 years among workers who died from cancer of the lung or bronchus
  • 10.8 years among residents with mesothelioma
  • 14.6 years among people diagnosed with asbestosis

It’s worth noting this study only evaluated mineworkers. This data does not reflect asbestos exposure for the entire population of Libby, which suffered from an abnormally high number of cases of asbestos diseases.

In early 2023, W.R. Grace, the owner of the mine in Libby, Montana, proposed $18.5 million to settle the state of Montana’s environmental damages claims. According to the state of Montana’s website, W.R. Grace & Co. will be required to pay $18.5 million to settle Montana’s natural resource damage claims.

The Montana Natural Resource Damage Program will receive the $18.5 million plus interest over the next 10 years, with the first payment of $5 million due six months after the execution of the agreement. The funds will be used to restore, replace or rehabilitate damaged natural resources in Lincoln County, which includes Libby.

Patient Advocates Available for Mine Workers With Mesothelioma

If you were exposed to asbestos as a mine worker and developed mesothelioma, contact our patient advocates, registered nurse Karen Ritter and VA claims agent retired LCDR Carl Jewett. We can connect you with top mesothelioma specialists to get the best treatment possible.

Aside from mesothelioma treatment, you deserve financial compensation. Asbestos exposure could have been prevented by the same companies responsible for it. The corporations which manufactured and distributed asbestos and asbestos-containing materials could have prevented the health issues countless Americans are experiencing.

Mine workers were never informed of the serious health risks associated with the job they worked everyday. They were not provided with proper protective equipment, which could have prevented their diseases. Because of this, you deserve to be compensated by the companies responsible for your mesothelioma. 

We can refer you to the best mesothelioma specialists in the world for treatment and assist you with finding legal representation. Contact Karen Ritter, R.N., at karen@mesotheliomaguide.com for more information.

Sources & Author

  1. Asbestos: mining exposure, health effects and policy implications. National Library of Medicine. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2323486/. Accessed: 06/30/2023.
  2. Asbestos Hazards in the Mining Industry. United States Department of Labor. Retrieved from: https://www.msha.gov/sites/default/files/Alerts%20and%20Hazards/HH%20Cards/HH-21%20Asbestos%20Hazards.pdf. Accessed: 07/03/2023.
  3. Safe Work Practices. United States Environmental Protection Agency. Retrieved from: https://www.epa.gov/asbestos/safe-work-practices. Accessed: 10/31/2023.
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About the Writer, Camryn Keeble

Camryn Keeble is the senior 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.