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Written By: Devin Golden

Asbestos Exposure for Steel Mill Workers

Steel mill workers operate furnaces, ovens and machinery at extreme heat levels to melt, mold, and create iron ore that is turned into iron and steel. As a way of counteracting the severely hot temperatures, steel mills during the 20th century were filled with asbestos. Steel mill workers were routinely faced with occupational asbestos exposure.

Retired LCDR Carl Jewett

Reviewed By

Retired LCDR Carl Jewett

VA-Accredited Claims Agent

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Important Facts About Asbestos Exposure in Steel Mills

  • Steel mill workers melt, mold, and form materials to make steel. This requires extreme heat, which creates a hot work environment and a risk of fires. Asbestos was a counteragent for very high temperatures.
  • Asbestos was used to insulate furnaces, ovens, pipes and more. It was also added to work equipment, such as gloves, masks and aprons. Asbestos was part of steel-making machinery and steel-making process itself as well.
  • Medical articles point to steel mill workers and metal workers – such as welders – as having a high risk of asbestos diseases, including mesothelioma.

What is the Job of Steel Mill Workers?

Steel mill workers – also called steel factory workers or steel industry workers – melt, mold, and form iron ore and other materials to make iron and steel. This steel is used for products or to build bridges, highways and buildings.

Steel industry workers operate furnaces, molding equipment, and rolling and finishing machines to make iron pipes, grates, steel slabs, bars, billets, sheets, rods, wires, and plates. They work in hot temperatures due to the extreme heat required to melt, mold, and create steel.

Due to the extreme temperatures required in the steel industry, asbestos was often used to manufacture the machinery and equipment used in steel mills, which means these workers are at high risk for occupational asbestos exposure.

Workers in a steel mill are different from ironworkers, who install iron and steel as structural and foundation reinforcement and support for buildings, bridges and roads.

Asbestos Use in Steel Mills

Asbestos was a popular mineral for industrial use during most of the 20th century. The height of its use was from the 1920s-1980s, prior to the public learning of the dangers and companies facing lawsuits for current and former workers’ cancer.

Steel mills rely on heat, and any location with high temperatures is at risk of catching fire. Asbestos is an insulant, capable of resisting heat, and was often used in mills to counteract severely hot temperatures.

Asbestos exposure in steel manufacturing was also common due to the actual steel-making process. Some steelworkers poured melted steel into ingots for the steel to cool. These ingot casings were lined with asbestos and the ingots were topped after the pouring with highly concentrated asbestos, called Hot Tops, to cool the steel down faster. Then, after cooling, these workers would break the ingot casing and Hot Tops to get the ingot out.

Steel mills needed heat for furnaces and ovens, and asbestos insulated these areas. Other areas of a steel mill that once contained asbestos include:

  • Ceiling tiles, floor tiles and more
  • Insulation for steam pipes
  • The Balance of Equipment and Balance of Plant areas, where asbestos was in ingot casings and used as a topping to cool the steel faster
  • Brake pads, pumps, clutches and other heat-generating machine parts
  • Masks, gloves, aprons, leggings and other protective gear for workers

Legacy Asbestos in Steel Mills

New uses of asbestos in steel mills and other industrial jobs stopped towards the end of the 20th century. The general public learned asbestos was dangerous, and companies which manufactured and used the mineral were liable for legal action from workers and their families.

Any current risk of asbestos exposure for steel mill workers is due to legacy asbestos. This term refers to any old asbestos installed in a steel mill during the 20th century – when the use of asbestos was more accepted – and has not been removed since then.

Some steel mills may still have asbestos lining old furnaces or ovens, or as an insulant around old pipes or hidden beneath floor tiles. Renovation work is the main way of uncovering and removing legacy asbestos.

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Asbestos Diseases for Steel Mill Workers

Asbestos diseases include lung cancer, ovarian cancer, a lung scarring disease called asbestosis, and a rare cancer called mesothelioma.

Mesothelioma forms in the thin linings of the lungs and abdominal cavity. These thin linings are made of tissue layers. When asbestos is disturbed, the weightless and microscopic fibers contaminate the air. If the fibers are inhaled or swallowed, they can travel and stick to these thin linings. The fibers are sharp and can puncture the tissue linings, which can cause cells to mutate and turn cancerous.

There are multiple scientific journals that report on the high risk of asbestos diseases for steel mill workers:

  • One report from South America found 27 people with pulmonary (lung) diseases who worked at a steel factory in the continent. Four of the former steel mill workers had mesothelioma, and one had lung cancer.
  • A report analyzed air samples at three U.S. steel mills from 1972-1982. Asbestos was detected in open-hearth furnaces, stoves and blast furnaces.
  • Researchers and Georgetown University and Duke University assessed the risk of mesothelioma cancer for steel and metal workers. They analyzed 1,445 occupation-related cases of mesothelioma and found 43 cases involving welders or steelworkers. This occupation ranked ninth for occupational asbestos exposure among all types of jobs, more evidence that steel mill work is a high-risk job.

Help Available for Steel Mill Workers With Mesothelioma

Former or current steel mill workers with mesothelioma can seek compensation for their cancer diagnosis. The companies which manufactured asbestos in steel-making machinery or used it in steel mills are responsible for the emotional and financial distress caused by your disease.

Please reach out to our patient advocates for guidance connecting with mesothelioma specialists and treatment centers. 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. Pulmonary disease due to asbestos in steel industry workers. Medicina. Retrieved from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23732197/. Accessed: 07/04/2023.
  2. An analysis of workplace exposures to asbestos at three steel mills located in the United States (1972-1982). Toxicology and Industrial Health. Retrieved from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31818240/. Accessed: 07/04/2023.
  3. Malignant Mesothelioma and Occupational Exposure to Asbestos: an Analysis of 1445 Cases. National Library of Medicine. Retrieved from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12036093/. Accessed: 07/04/2023.
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.