The federal government established multiple organizations, including OSHA and the Environmental Protection Agency, to protect workers from dangerous occupational conditions such as asbestos exposure.
The mission of protecting workers from the dangers of asbestos exposure on the job, and other hazardous conditions, falls on several federal and worldwide organizations.
The four major regulatory organizations include:
One of the dangers these agencies are involved in is asbestos exposure – a leading cause of work-place injury, illness and death.
Asbestos fibers become easily airborne, especially during regular maintenance of machinery or materials containing the mineral, construction, repair work or demolition. Breathing in these microscopic fibers can cause a variety of respiratory illnesses, including mesothelioma and lung cancer.
When the U.S. Congress passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, it created OSHA to protect working men and women at their jobs. The goal was to prevent Americans from serious injury or death in any occupational pursuits and to promote safer working conditions for all levels of employees.
Asbestos is one of the many threats that OSHA tackled – a controversial, 40-year battle it continues to wage. In fact, the fourth most frequently cited OSHA standard violation is respiratory protection, which involves harmful dusts, gases and vapors, and more specifically, microscopic asbestos fibers.
An estimated five million workers in America are required to wear respirators at work because of OSHA regulations. Respiratory protection is addressed specifically for marine terminals, shipyard employment, long shoring and construction industries.
OSHA warns that “exposures tend to occur in the construction industry and in ship repair, particularly during the removal of asbestos materials due to renovation, repairs or demolition. Workers also are likely to be exposed during the manufacture of asbestos products (such as textiles, friction products insulation, and other building materials) and during automotive brake and clutch repair work.”
To help enforce its goal of protecting Americans against asbestos exposure, OSHA imposes fines. For example, it levied fines of $1.24 million in 2011 against AMD Industries, Inc., after five unprotected and untrained workers in Illinois removed asbestos on a job site. “No one should risk serious illness or death to earn a paycheck,” Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis said. “Such disregard will not be tolerated.”
Since OSHA was formed, workplace fatalities have dropped by more than 65 percent. Occupational injury and illness rates have declined by 67 percent, according to OHSA statistics. Mesothelioma deaths have been steady and show no sign of a slowdown.
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OSHA has a Maritime Advisory Committee that handles the issue of asbestos around ships and shipbuilding, an industry that once relied heavily on the material. The committee focuses primarily on shipbuilding, shipbreaking, ship repair and a number of professions related to the maritime industry.
Its heat resistance, low cost, pliability and versatility made asbestos a perfect fireproofing material for ships. These benefits blinded employers, municipalities, regulators and lawmakers for decades to evidence of how dangerous it could be. In the U.S. Navy, for example, asbestos was sprayed on almost everything as insulation and fireproofing.
That is why Navy veterans, among all servicemen, have the highest incidence of mesothelioma. An estimated 30 percent of the mesothelioma cases in the U.S. are veterans.
As recently as 2009, Seward Ship’s Drydock was fined more than $87,000 by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for “willful, serious and repeat violations of safety and health standards.” Among the violations was Seward Ship’s lack of air testing in confined work spaces and “respiratory protection hazards.”
OSHA has specific permissible asbestos exposure limits and requires an exposure monitoring program for certain classifications within the construction and shipyard industries. It also requires certain employers to provide training and protective clothing to safeguard workers against asbestos exposure on the job. It also requires extensive recordkeeping and medical monitoring.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) was established in 1970 to help assure the well-being of American workers, providing the research, information, education and training that make it possible.
NIOSH is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and in the Department of Health and Human Services. Its mission is to generate knowledge and ideas through scientific research. It conducts studies, produces publications, disseminates information, makes recommendations and does workplace health evaluations to benefit American workers.
The agency does not have enforcement power.
Asbestos is one of many dangers NIOSH has tried to protect the American worker from, yet it might be the most troubling one because it was used carelessly by industries that already knew the dangers asbestos presented.
An estimated 49,000 deaths annually in the U.S. are attributed to work-related diseases, according to NIOSH. To help reduce that number, NIOSH lists more than 1,100 asbestos-related topics on its website that range from teaching auto mechanics how to avoid asbestos exposure when working on brake drums to different types of respirators that are available for those in the shipbuilding industry.
NIOSH also issued a “Roadmap Document” in 2011, and it serves as the recommended framework and starting point for a national asbestos research strategy to address scientific uncertainties about occupational exposure.
That bulletin is available at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It also addresses the exposure issues with asbestos-like mineral particles that also are being used as substitutes.
Research Roadmap priorities include:
Another example is the innovative research that NIOSH is funding for the rapidly emerging nanotechnology, and how it relates to occupational safety. A variety of commercial products incorporate nanotechnology, but there is little regulation. There is worry that carbon nanotubes exhibit a structure similar to asbestos fibers, which may cause similar health issues.
Founded in 1948 and based in Geneva, Switzerland, WHO encourages governments and industries to find alternative products, pushing to make workplaces and workers safe from all toxic pollutants, particularly from carcinogens like asbestos.
Much of WHO’s constitutional responsibility is providing leadership on global health matters, setting standards and assessing health trends. It helps shape health research and evidence-based policy options.
Although its work regarding asbestos has been productive, it is far from done. WHO officials estimate that 125 million people are exposed to asbestos in the workplace annually, and 107,000 of them will die from it in 2012.
WHO warns countries to stop using asbestos or face a future cancer epidemic. Despite WHO’s efforts, many developing areas in Southeast Asia, Africa and India continue to use the cost-effective asbestos building materials.
In 2002, WHO and the World Trade Organization performed a joint study entitled, “WTO Agreements and Public Health,” which helped illustrate the link between world trade and world health.
Asbestos was a prominent topic in the study, including a chapter on “Measures Effecting Asbestos and Asbestos Containing Products.” That chapter detailed Canada’s challenge of a French decree prohibiting “the manufacture, sale, export, import or use of asbestos fibers and products containing asbestos fibers.”
In September 2000, the WTO Dispute Panel ruled in favor of the European communities ban across Europe, and rejected the Canadian argument that “controlled use” of asbestos should be permitted. “WTO Members have the undisputed right to determine the level of health protection they deem appropriate,” the panel said.
WHO worked with the International Labour Office in 2007 and produced an “Outline for the Development of National Programmes For Elimination of Asbestos-Related Diseases.”
As part of that outline, they agreed to work with other intergovernmental organizations with a goal of completely eliminating asbestos-related diseases.
Recognize the best way to eliminate asbestos-related diseases is to stop using all types of asbestos.
Provide information about replacing asbestos with safer substitutes and developing economic and technological mechanisms to stimulate its replacement.
Take measures to prevent exposure to asbestos already in place, and particularly during asbestos abatement.
Improve early diagnosis, treatment and medical attention of asbestos-related diseases and by establishing registries of people with current and past exposure to asbestos.
The outline also differentiated between the different types of asbestos, playing especially close attention to the more commonly used forms.
“Continued use of chrysotile asbestos cement in construction industry is a particular concern. Because the workforce is large, it is difficult to control exposure and in–place materials have the potential to deteriorate and pose a risk to those carrying out alternations, maintenance and demolitions. In various applications, asbestos can be replaced by…other products which pose much less or no risk to health,” according to the outline.
As the coordinating authority on public health matters within the United Nations, WHO leads the fight for a worldwide ban on asbestos.
“The tragedy of occupational cancer resulting from asbestos, benzene and other carcinogens is that it takes so long for science to be translated into protective action,” said Maria Neira, M.D., WHO Director of Public Health and Environment. “Known and preventable exposures are clearly responsible for hundreds of thousands of excess cancer cases each year. In the interests of protecting our health, we must adopt an approach rooted in primary prevention that is to make workplaces free from carcinogenic risks.”
Formed in 1970 by an act of Congress, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is charged with writing and enforcing regulations that protect human health and the environment in this country. It has more than 17,000 employees, half of which are scientists, engineers or environmental protections specialists. All are geared toward assessment, research and education to help make everyone safer.
The enforcement arm of the EPA has the responsibility of maintaining and policing a variety of environmental laws, including those regarding asbestos exposure.
It can delegate some monitoring, permitting and enforcement responsibilities to the states and Native American tribes. It can sanction, fine or take other measures against violators. It is not shy about using its muscle against those who violate the laws, discouraging others from doing the same.
The EPA, along with the U.S. Department of Justice, announced that the Coffeyville Resources Refining and Marketing Company in Kansas agree to a civil penalty of $970,000 and to invest more than $4.25 million in pollution controls and $6.5 million more for operating costs, to resolve alleged violations at its refinery.
The Ellwood Quality Steel Company in New Castle, Pennsylvania, agreed to pay a $150,000 penalty to settle alleged violations of hazardous waste regulations at its manufacturing plant, after an EPA inspection.
The Union Pacific Railroad Company agreed to pay a civil penalty of $1.5 million for alleged violations of the EPA’s Clean Water Act and Oil Pollution Act. The settlement dates back to 2003 and 2004 and involves claims of violations in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming.
Cleaning our communities is one of the seven priorities for 2012, said EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, who cited the “asbestos public health emergency” in Libby, Montana, as an example.
The EPA has headquarters in Washington, D.C., and 10 regional offices spread across the country. There are 27 laboratories. There also are branches that include financial, legal, public affairs and information technology.
Matt Mauney is an award-winning journalist with nearly a decade of professional writing experience. He joined Asbestos.com in 2016, and he spends much of his time reading, analyzing and reporting on mesothelioma research articles to ensure people in the mesothelioma community know the latest medical advancements. Prior to joining Asbestos.com, Matt was a reporter at the Orlando Sentinel. Matt also edits some of the pages on the website. He also holds a certificate in health writing from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Read More