Written By: Devin Golden

Asbestos Exposure for Carpenters

Carpenters are one of the many construction occupations at risk of asbestos exposure. Daily exposure to this deadly mineral put many carpenters from the 20th century in danger. There is a strong connection between carpentry work and mesothelioma, a rare cancer.


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Important Facts About Asbestos Exposure for Carpenters

  • Carpenters have a wide range of job duties in the construction of homes and other buildings. They measure, mark, cut, shape, fit, and finish wood, plastic, metal and other materials.
  • Many of the materials used in carpentry included asbestos during the 20th century to protect from overheating or fires. Carpenters also used power tools, which can create heat and benefited from an insulant such as asbestos.
  • Numerous studies connect carpentry work with asbestos exposure and 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.

How Were Carpenters Exposed to Asbestos?

Asbestos is fire-resistant, cheap to produce and durable, which made the mineral commonplace in construction and carpentry components. Everything, from floor tiles to ceiling tiles and wallboards to support beams, was built with asbestos. It protected them from catching fire, which was considered a safety benefit.

Carpenters also use a lot of hand-power tools, some of which create hot temperatures and can cause electrical fires or other heat damage. Asbestos could’ve been used during the 20th century to insulate these tools and the general carpentry environment, protecting the workers and the building framework.

During the 20th century, many U.S. carpenters weren’t provided the appropriate Personal Protection Equipment (PPE). 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 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 homes, offices, other buildings and products. Any home or office building from the 1980s or earlier likely contains asbestos, unless the mineral was already removed in a remodeling project.

“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 will face a threat of asbestos exposure, so the hazard isn’t completely eradicated. 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.

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 and delicate fibers. These strands often separated from the original source and floated in the air. Carpenters working with asbestos could inhale or swallow these sharp loose 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. Carpentry work is one of the at-risk occupations.

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.