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Why Asbestos Still Threatens Construction Workers’ Health

May 11, 2021
Asbestos exposure remains a significant risk for today’s construction workers—and will pose an even greater risk for decades to come.

Asbestos continues to represent a considerable threat to the health of construction workers and the population at large. Though some applications for asbestos have been banned in the United States, the naturally occurring silicate mineral itself is not.

The first use of asbestos is believed to date back to the Stone Age, approximately 750,000 years ago, as archeologists found asbestos fibers that were used for wicks in lamps and candles. Furthermore, the embalmed bodies of Egyptian pharaohs were wrapped in asbestos cloth to protect the bodies from deterioration between 2000-3000 B.C. In Finland, clay pots dating back to 2500 B.C. contained asbestos fibers, which are believed to have been added to strengthen the pots and make them resistant to fire.

Knowing the modern history of asbestos is important to understanding the current challenges in the construction sector. In the 20th century, industrialization gave way to unparalleled development and growth throughout the nation. Asbestos was then the raw material of choice for an almost infinite range of applications. It was hailed as a magical material and praised for its:

  • Unique strength and durability qualities;
  • Fire, heat, chemical and electricity resistance; and
  • Low cost of mining and production.

The physical and chemical qualities of asbestos made it ideal for solving the many technical challenges arising from industrialization. For example, companies used asbestos extensively as a fortification measure in nearly everything, such as tile, flooring, insulation, electrical applications, heating systems, cooling systems, windows and roofing. 

In the early 20th century, the medical community quickly realized the adverse health effects of this deadly mineral. That’s when cases of asbestos-related mortality were first diagnosed and documented. However, despite this newfound knowledge, the use of asbestos continued. Asbestos reached its heyday after World War II when the number of applications and products grew in the construction industry.

The mineral has since fallen from grace after more and more pertinent medical studies supported the connection between asbestos exposure and lung disease in the 1980s, but it can still be found in U.S. commercial, industrial and residential buildings erected before the mid-1980s. Awareness of the adverse health effects of asbestos grew, leading to a shift in public opinion.

Many Americans assume that asbestos is banned. It is not. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) tried to ban asbestos in 1989. However, most of its regulations were overturned in 1991 through an appeals court ruling. The EPA has banned new uses of asbestos and its use in flooring felt, rollboard, commercial paper, corrugated paper, specialty paper and spray-applied asbestos. However, the mineral is still being imported and used in existing consumer and industrial products, mostly in roofing materials, fireproof clothing and automotive components such as gaskets and brakes.

Asbestos continues to pose a significant health threat, particularly for workers in the construction sector and for inhabitants of asbestos-infested buildings and workplaces. 

Asbestos Exposure in the Construction Industry

Many occupational groups are at risk of asbestos exposure. However, the construction sector tops the list of dangerous professions, according to recent findings from Advisor Smith. In this industry, occupational hazards are accepted risks, and the threat of respiratory illness caused by asbestos exposure remains a legitimate concern.

Due to how extensively asbestos was used, construction workers will come across asbestos on a regular basis in almost every type of construction. All too often, these products remain hidden in virtually every part of a building or structure. This puts workers conducting maintenance, renovation or demolition at risk of exposure to asbestos fibers, yet they are often unaware of the dangers, especially when they lack the awareness training and knowledge about safety precautions.

Most likely, a construction worker will know that asbestos is a hazardous substance they will often encounter and that there are fines and penalties for improper handling and disposal as well as:

  • Where it can be found;
  • What the mineral looks like; and
  • Where it was used.

There are extensive publications about the hazards of asbestos, such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards for proper asbestos protocol and EPA’s Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act. Nevertheless, the average construction worker does not know enough about the aforementioned protocol and dangers associated with asbestos exposure.

Employers often fail to inform their workers about the health consequences of asbestos exposure and may even fail to provide them with adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) or respiratory protective equipment (RPE) to wear when working with the mineral.

Identifying asbestos-containing products can be difficult given their prevalence and pervasiveness in construction. Furthermore, asbestos-containing materials become susceptible to fragmentation as they age. This can release deadly asbestos fibers into the air. Once released, asbestos fibers cannot be detected without technical equipment. Unfortunately, this is not done consistently.

Once inhaled, the mineral fragments can become lodged in the body. Even when the amounts of inhaled fibers might be small, there are no safe exposure limits. Together with the accumulated exposure over a worker’s career, there is an increased risk of falling ill with asbestos-related diseases such as mesothelioma or asbestosis.

A lack of awareness and asbestos removal planning means that dealing with it is postponed to a later time. For example, painters, electricians and floor tilers conducting renovation on parts of a building may expose themselves to asbestos and potentially leave behind asbestos products that will continue to pose a risk for the next generation of workers.

The best way to ensure worker safety is for them to know the threat asbestos poses to their health. When education is paramount, the effects will manifest and safeguard the health of workers and provide an environment where the job can be completed efficiently. Thus, they will be more apt to follow proper protocols and compliance policies.

Building owners and employees must assess workplaces according to the standards to determine if asbestos is present and if the planned work will generate airborne fibers. This is done by a specific method under each standard before commencing major works. A thorough and complete risk assessment should include full details of the work to be carried out and an estimate of how long the work is going to take. It should also include the following:

  • details of the type and quantity of the asbestos;
  • details of the expected level of exposure;
  • details of the controls to be used to reduce exposure, e.g., use of local exhaust ventilation, controlled wetting, adequate PPE / RPE use of enclosures;
  • decontamination procedures for tools, equipment and PPE;
  • details on how asbestos waste will be managed; and
  • emergency procedures.

Awareness training is highly important, as it is the only way for workers to identify potential sources of asbestos to protect themselves. Asbestos-related diseases can have latency periods of up to 30 or 40 years. The danger is that employers and workers alike often perceive asbestos as an abstract threat without immediate consequences. Thus, many pay too little attention to potential dangers until it is too late.

Health Effects of Exposure to Asbestos

Throughout the 20th century, sturdy men with a lifetime of construction experience began exhibiting signs of alarming illness. These men spent their entire working lives in the industry, only to receive a diagnosis of mesothelioma. This rare disease was first recognized in the 1960s. 

Their symptoms included:

  • Chest pain,
  • Chronic cough and
  • Fluid buildup in the lungs. 

As it stands today, the only known cause of mesothelioma is asbestos exposure. Mesothelioma is often misdiagnosed because of the rarity of mesothelioma and the commonality of the symptoms that can be attributed to several illnesses.

Most cases of malignant mesothelioma are diagnosed in the late stages. Once specialists diagnose mesothelioma, patients face an imposing prognosis. The average patient lives 12-21 months after diagnosis

Treatment options vary based on the progression of cancer, but patients can expect a regimen of chemotherapy, radiation and sometimes surgical removal of affected tissues. Currently, mesothelioma has no cure.

Although asbestos helped forge America’s cities, it did so at the cost of the lives of many workers and their loved ones. With an estimated 39,275 annual asbestos-related deaths, the mineral is believed to still cause:

  • 34,270 lung cancer deaths,
  • 3,161 mesothelioma deaths,
  • 787 ovarian cancer deaths,
  • 443 larynx cancer deaths and
  • 613 chronic asbestosis deaths. 

Considering the rate of asbestos removal today, asbestos will continue to claim a significant number of lives for decades to come.

As older workers retire and a new generation with little experience of the dangers of the mineral take their place, public awareness and knowledge about the dangers of asbestos is fading away, posing an even greater risk for future generations of workers.

Given these dangers, the construction sector will have to face the challenge of protecting today’s workers from asbestos hazards during their careers. Companies need to take appropriate actions to protect their workers from asbestos—now. Thousands of companies have already been held accountable even after the typically long latency periods of asbestos-related diseases, and that already established legal precedent will likely be applied in the future, too.

Treven Pyles is the administrative director with the Birmingham, Alabama-based law firm Environmental Litigation Group, P.C., a firm that handles complex cases of chemical toxic exposure resulting from occupational exposure in an industrial setting or the military. 

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