Written by: Retired LCDR Carl Jewett
Occupational Asbestos Exposure
Exposure to asbestos usually occurs from one’s work or job. People who worked high-risk trades during the 20th century likely experienced occupational asbestos exposure. This put millions of Americans in danger of mesothelioma.
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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. Of them, approximately 90% were due to occupational exposure. The remaining 10% were mostly from secondary exposure.
The three jobs with the most cases were:
- U.S. Navy members
- Construction workers
Asbestos was beloved for construction work and in the military. It had the reputation of a “wonder material.” Asbestos coatings and sealants acted as a fireproof around electrical wiring, pipes, floorboards, roof tiles and more.
It was also cheap to produce and purchase, making it worth adding to any material with a risk of overheating or catching fire.
Unfortunately, asbestos is also a carcinogen. It can break apart and release sharp fragments into the air. Workers handling asbestos or working near it would breathe in the particles, putting them at risk of disease.
People At Risk, Type of Mesothelioma and Survival Trends
Mesothelioma primarily affects males, largely because men held jobs that involved 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 takes 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 exposed to asbestos won’t be diagnosed until after retirement.
Occupational exposure to asbestos usually leads to mesothelioma of the pleura (a thin lining near your lungs):
- Pleural mesothelioma occurs in 90.5% of occupational exposure cases.
- The other type of mesothelioma, which forms in the peritoneum (lining of your abdominal cavity), accounts for 9.5% of occupational exposure cases.
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
The researchers at Georgetown University and Duke University compiled a list of the top occupations linked to mesothelioma cases. The top 10 jobs are:
These 10 occupation types include specific trades that better define a person’s duties. The researchers listed the top five jobs led to mesothelioma cases:
Other jobs with asbestos exposure also have high rates of mesothelioma. One study listed carpentry (a type of construction job) as the top occupation linked to mesothelioma. Others are painters, clay artists, bakers, pastry cooks and hairdressers.
Some occupations, such as school teachers, face asbestos exposure due to their interior work setting. One teacher from Philadelphia developed mesothelioma after multiple decades 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.
Ships catching fire at sea was a safety concern for the entire crew. Asbestos was an easy solution to prevent this risk from becoming reality. So shipbuilders used asbestos when constructing and putting together the many parts of Navy ships.
Navy veterans served aboard these asbestos-filled ships. They slept in rooms made with asbestos and worked in boiler rooms and other areas of the ship doused with asbestos.
Brake linings were built with chrysotile asbestos starting in the 1940s. This prevented vehicles from catching fire. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, it is nearly impossible to identify asbestos dust on brakes or clutches.
The braking process causes dust to build up in the wheel well. This dust can include fragments of asbestos disturbed from pressure applied to brakes.
Mechanics installing new brakes were exposed up until the 1980s. Since many old vehicles are brought in for repairs, automobile mechanics were exposed in the 1990s and 2000s when replacing worn down brakes.
The goal is to construct buildings that resist storms, fires and more. This protects people inside and around the buildings.
The solution was asbestos, which created a health issue for workers. They handled asbestos 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:
- Insulation workers
- Plumbing and pipefitting
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.
The 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Centers is the most publicized example of asbestos exposure for firefighters. The skyscrapers were built with tons of asbestos.
Asbestos in the electrical industry was an afterthought for decades. Again, asbestos is fire‑resistant. So any opportunities to protect wires or switch boards from catching fire was a necessity.
The main use was for insulation around:
- Electrical wiring
- Control boards
- Switch gears
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 contaminate the air.
Machinists include railroad workers. One study found 42 mesothelioma cases among former railroad machinists.
Hairdressers and Hair Stylists
Since asbestos is a heat‑resistant mineral, it protected some items from catching fire. Hair dryers, for instance, are an example. These were made with asbestos in the 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.
Bakers and Pastry Cooks
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 and pastry cooks with mesothelioma. Asbestos fibers could loosen and contaminate the air where bakers worked, or even fall onto the food being cooked.
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 and on appliances.
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.
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
Scientists made the 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.
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, 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. 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 this mineral 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 the substance’s cheap and durable qualities. In 1973, the United States produced 136,000 tons of asbestos.
Asbestos’ widespread existence in America continued until the 1980s. This 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)
- Electrical wires
- Chemical containers
- Heat-protective pads
- Roofing and flooring materials (such as shingles and tiles)
- Adhesives and sealants
- Insulation products
- Paper products
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 asbestos is still used in the United States. Contrary to most people’s knowledge, asbestos is not banned in the country.
The EPA attempted but failed to ban asbestos in 1989. 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.
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.
These regulations are necessary because of old construction products and the continued use of asbestos products in the United States.
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.
Common Questions About Occupational Asbestos Exposure
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.
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
- Construction and insulation workers
- Pipefitters and plumbers
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.
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 negligible party is the asbestos manufacturing company, not your employer.