Occupational Asbestos Exposure
Occupational asbestos exposure is the primary cause of mesothelioma and asbestosis. Working around asbestos puts people at risk for several types of cancer and serious pulmonary diseases. While asbestos was widely used, some occupations have higher risks of exposure to asbestos in the workplace.
Written by Michelle Whitmer Edited By Walter Pacheco Scientifically Reviewed By Diana Zuckerman, Ph.D.
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How to Cite Asbestos.com’s Article
Whitmer, M. (2023, February 16). Occupational Asbestos Exposure. Asbestos.com. Retrieved May 25, 2023, from https://www.asbestos.com/occupations/
Whitmer, Michelle. "Occupational Asbestos Exposure." Asbestos.com, 16 Feb 2023, https://www.asbestos.com/occupations/.
Whitmer, Michelle. "Occupational Asbestos Exposure." Asbestos.com. Last modified February 16, 2023. https://www.asbestos.com/occupations/.
Asbestos Exposure at Work
Asbestos is still found across the country in buildings, roads, homes, schools, factories, ships, trains and automobiles. It’s regulated in the U.S., but it is not banned. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is currently developing ways to address risks from new and legacy asbestos products.
A surprising number of products are still made with asbestos, including automobile brakes and clutches, roofing materials and gaskets. Asbestos was used virtually everywhere in America. It is a mineral that exists naturally in a fibrous form and is resistant to heat, water, chemicals and electricity.
Throughout the 20th century, asbestos was incorporated into thousands of construction, commercial and household products. These products include fireproof coatings, concrete and cement, bricks, pipes, gaskets, insulation, drywall, flooring, roofing, joint compound, paints and sealants. Asbestos also exists in electrical appliances, plastics, rubber, mattresses, flowerpots, lawn furniture, hats and gloves.
Occupational Exposure Facts
- Asbestos exposure is the No. 1 cause of work-related deaths worldwide.
- More than 39,000 American lives are lost to asbestos-related disease every year.
- About 1.3 million U.S. workers are potentially at risk of exposure at their workplaces.
Working with asbestos products puts your health at risk. According to a 2022 report by the European Commission, over 70,000 workers died in 2019 from past exposure to asbestos.
Asbestos exposure is proven to cause cancer and other serious diseases, including mesothelioma, lung cancer, ovarian cancer and asbestosis. If you have been diagnosed with an asbestos-related disease it is important to consult a doctor specializing in your specific diagnosis.
According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, an estimated 27 million workers were exposed to asbestos between 1940 and 1979 and could be at risk for developing mesothelioma and other serious asbestos-related diseases. Regulations have reduced the risk of exposure in the workplace, but a degree of risk remains for many occupations.
According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, exposures to asbestos above the recommended limit declined from 6.3% of workers between 1987 and 1994 to 4.3% from 2000 to 2003.
Top At-Risk Occupations for Asbestos Exposure
- Roofing and flooring materials are still made with asbestos. This places current construction workers on new projects at risk of exposure.
- Demolition crews and home renovators are among the most at risk of exposure.
- Thousands of construction products contained asbestos before the 1980s.
- Even though asbestos was used as a fireproofing material, fires can still damage asbestos products, causing the fibers to become airborne and possibly inhaled.
- Asbestos was used to make protective firefighting clothing, helmets and boots.
- Many firefighters were exposed to the toxic mineral during and after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center.
- Industrial workers, including mechanics, foremen, chemical workers and machinery operators, may encounter new asbestos products such as brake pads and gaskets.
- Industrial insulators are among the most at risk of exposure in the industry.
- Workers were exposed to asbestos in paper, textiles, gaskets, insulation and fireproofing.
Power Plant Worker
- A study found nearly 33% of power plant workers had asbestos in mucus samples.
- Cutting old asbestos pipes remains an exposure threat to power plant workers.
- Heat-resistant products were the most common sources of asbestos exposure. Examples include fireproofing spray and pipe insulation.
- Nearly 30% of mesothelioma lawsuits are filed by Navy veterans and government shipyard workers.
- Demolition, repair and decommissioning shipyard workers face the highest risk of asbestos exposure in shipyards today by handling old materials. Construction workers and boiler workers experienced high exposures in the past.
- Juries awarded shipyard workers multimillion-dollar verdicts in lawsuits against asbestos product manufacturers.
Additional Occupations at Risk of Asbestos Exposure
In addition to the top five occupations, there are other occupations associated with high, medium and low levels of asbestos exposure. The risk of mesothelioma increases with higher levels of exposure.
Workers in high-risk jobs tend to work around asbestos in high concentrations on a regular basis. They handle a variety of asbestos-containing products, including construction materials, insulation, gaskets, packing, brake pads, clutches and other industrial materials.
Mining: Asbestos mining is the profession with the greatest potential for dangerous asbestos exposure. Mining for asbestos in the U.S. ended in 2002, but many miners have been exposed since then because certain minerals — such as talc and vermiculite — are contaminated with asbestos. Additionally, the equipment miners use contains asbestos insulation and asbestos gaskets.
The most notorious incident occurred in W.R. Grace and Co.’s vermiculite mine in Libby, Montana. Beginning in the 1900s, hundreds of vermiculite miners and their families died of asbestosis and mesothelioma because the mine was contaminated with asbestos. The R.T. Vanderbilt talc mines in upstate New York are another example. These mines had dangerous levels of tremolite asbestos interlaced with the extracted minerals.
U.S. Navy Veterans: Asbestos was commonly used in the building of U.S. Navy ships throughout most of the last century. A large number of Navy veterans were exposed to the carcinogen as shipbuilders or sailors.
In fact, all divisions of the U.S. armed forces used asbestos in the construction of buildings, aircraft and automobiles. Asbestos exposure was also a hazard for sailors of the Merchant Marine.
In June 1999, the Navy Public Works Center Lead and Asbestos Abatement Team began reducing the presence of lead and asbestos in shipyards using ice blasting technology. This technique is favored in the cleaning of historic structures. It decreases the amount of hazardous waste produced and minimizes dust.
Demolition Crews: Asbestos remediation and decontamination also places workers at risk of exposure. Older buildings have asbestos in walls, floors, attics, ceilings and roofs. When these buildings are torn down, exposure becomes a risk. Demolition crews, bulldozer and crane operators and other laborers can become exposed to asbestos dust.
Occupations with a high risk of asbestos exposure include:
- Asbestos Mining: No occupation carried a higher risk of asbestos exposure than mining asbestos-containing ore.
- Asbestos Plant Workers: Arguably the second-most dangerous job that put workers at risk of asbestos exposure was manufacturing asbestos products. The risk of these asbestos plant workers dying from throat or lung cancer was 244% higher than the general population.
- Boiler Workers: Boiler workers were exposed to high levels of asbestos in small spaces. As a result, they suffer higher rates of mesothelioma and asbestosis from exposure to asbestos insulation, gaskets and valves on boilers.
- Construction Workers: Construction jobs are a major source of asbestos exposure in the U.S. About 25% of people who die of asbestosis worked in the construction industry, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Some of the most at-risk jobs include building inspectors, excavators, floor coverers, painters, road construction workers, tile setters, sawyers, contractors and building managers.
- Firefighters: Firefighters can encounter dangerous levels of asbestos when responding to fires and natural disasters. Firefighters are more than twice as likely to develop mesothelioma than the general population.
- Industrial Workers: The types of asbestos products used in industrial job sites often contained high amounts of asbestos to prevent fires, which exposed workers to dangerous levels of asbestos. Machinists, mixing operatives and maintenance workers faced some of the greatest exposure.
- Insulators: Considered one of the most dangerous jobs for high levels of asbestos exposure, insulators are more than 10 times as likely to develop mesothelioma compared to the general population.
- Factory Workers: The risk among factory workers varied depending upon the type of factory in which they worked. Factory workers endured a high level of exposure, including brake and clutch factory workers, glass factory workers, rubber factory workers, and packing and gasket manufacturing workers.
- Power Plant Workers: Power plants contained many different types of asbestos products, such as asbestos cement and insulation, that put workers at constant risk of exposure.
- Shipyard Workers: Both civilian and U.S. Navy shipyard workers faced high levels of exposure working in shipyards. Longshoremen and other workers suffer higher rates of mesothelioma as a result of past asbestos exposure in shipyards.
- Steel Mill Workers: Asbestos was used all throughout steel mills because it helped control the extremely high temperatures required to produce steel. Data from Belgian steel mill workers found they were three times more likely to die of mesothelioma than the general population.
- Textile Mill Workers: Asbestos was considered a valuable insulation and fire prevention material in textile mills. Because mill machinery operated at high temperatures, there was an increased risk of fire. Textile mill workers such as weavers, job and die setters and protective clothing manufacturers suffer higher rates of asbestosis and mesothelioma as a result of past asbestos exposure.
Moderate-risk jobs involve direct or indirect work with asbestos materials. The concentration of asbestos fibers can range from low to high and may vary by day and job site.
Some jobs in this category expose workers to low levels of the mineral, but the frequency is enough for workers to inhale or ingest harmful amounts of asbestos over time. Other jobs may infrequently expose workers to high levels of asbestos.
These workers handled different asbestos-containing products such as automobile parts, construction materials, insulation, friction materials, machinery parts, pipes and repairing compounds. The products were manufactured by some of the biggest asbestos companies, including Johns Manville, Celotex, National Gypsum Co., Owens Corning and W.R. Grace & Co.
Occupations with a moderate risk of asbestos exposure include:
- Agricultural Workers: Farmers and agricultural workers encountered asbestos products in farm equipment and machinery, and some brands of fertilizer were contaminated with asbestos. Farmers who worked land that contained asbestos in the soil were exposed to higher levels of asbestos.
- Auto Mechanics: Auto mechanics encounter low to high levels of asbestos exposure depending on the kind of work they perform. Brake mechanics face the highest risk of exposure because of the amount of asbestos dust generated when changing brakes.
- Blacksmiths: Blacksmiths used asbestos-containing gloves, aprons, blankets and welding rods that presented a moderate risk of asbestos exposure.
- Carpenters: Carpenters directly handled asbestos products and worked around asbestos construction materials, which put some of them at a moderately high risk of exposure. Those who worked with insulation faced higher levels of exposure.
- Cement Plant Workers: Cement plant workers faced a moderate to high level of asbestos exposure when making asbestos cement blocks and other asbestos cement products.
- Chemical Plant Workers: Chemical engineers, technicians and maintenance workers worked around asbestos laboratory equipment, including asbestos ovens, asbestos lab countertops and asbestos insulation. They faced a low to moderate level of exposure.
- Engineers: Engineers of all types, including civil, environmental, construction, aerospace, mining and more, have worked at job sites where asbestos products are common. Some mechanical engineers directly handled asbestos parts. Exposure varied from low to moderately high.
- HVAC Mechanics: HVAC workers installed, repaired and removed asbestos-containing ductwork and worked around asbestos construction materials. Some workers also encountered asbestos furnace cement and asbestos insulation. Their exposure level was moderately high.
- Electricians: Electricians directly handled asbestos products and worked with asbestos construction materials. Their career exposure level can vary from relatively low to moderately high.
- Linotype Technicians: Old printing machines contained asbestos insulation and other asbestos parts that exposed linotype workers. Their exposure level went from moderately low to moderate if they worked in a building that contained other asbestos products.
- Metal Workers: Different types of metal workers, such as tinsmiths, blacksmiths, welders and metal manufacturing workers, encountered varying degrees of asbestos exposure throughout their careers. Metal workers used asbestos-containing welding rods, blankets, gloves and aprons on a regular basis.
- Oil Refinery Workers: Oil refinery workers came into contact with a lot of asbestos-containing insulating materials, including packing material and pipe wrap insulation. Asbestos gaskets, valves and pumps were common sources of exposure. Some workers faced low exposure, while maintenance workers faced higher levels of exposure.
- Paper Mill Workers: Machinists and maintenance workers in paper mills directly handled asbestos products, including packing material, gaskets and insulation, which led to relatively high levels of exposure for these workers. Other paper mill workers were exposed to moderate levels of asbestos found throughout mills.
- Plumbers: Plumbers encountered a moderate level of exposure through asbestos cement pipes, asbestos insulation and repairing compounds.
- Railroad Workers: Railroad maintenance workers and engineers faced a moderate level of exposure to asbestos in railway brakes and clutches, furnace cement, boiler parts and asbestos insulation.
Low-risk jobs infrequently place workers at risk of asbestos exposure. The concentration of toxic fibers in the workplace may be low or moderate. It may spike if a more dangerous project, job site or product is encountered. Even low-level asbestos concentrations can cause mesothelioma if exposure occurs regularly for years.
Workers were exposed to asbestos in insulation, appliances, brake pads, construction materials and repairing compounds. Manufacturers of these products range from big asbestos companies such as Honeywell and GAF Corp., to smaller companies, including Abex Corp. and the Flintkote Company.
Occupations with a low risk of asbestos exposure include:
- Aerospace Workers: Asbestos insulation was used on spacecraft that maintenance workers and engineers had to repair.
- Aircraft Mechanics: Both private and public sector aircraft mechanics were exposed to asbestos in electrical equipment, heat panels and insulation.
- Appliance Installers: Older appliances, including ovens, toasters and irons, contained asbestos insulation that appliance installers and repairers encountered through their work.
- Bakers: Ovens once contained asbestos insulation that presented an exposure risk to professional bakers.
- Chimney Sweeps: Chimney sweeps and workers who build fireplaces have been diagnosed with mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis as a result of exposure to asbestos-containing products, including firebricks, furnace cement, asbestos flues and asbestos insulation.
- Hairdressers: Hairdressers have been disproportionally diagnosed with asbestos-related diseases because of exposure to asbestos insulation in hairdryers and asbestos-contaminated talcum powder.
- Teachers: School teachers in private and public sectors at every level of education cope with slightly higher rates of mesothelioma because school buildings are likely to contain old asbestos construction materials.
- Toll Collectors: Toll collectors have slightly higher rates of asbestos-related diseases because of exposure to asbestos in brake pads and other automobile parts.
- Warehouse Workers: Warehouse buildings were often insulated with spray-on asbestos insulation, and they were likely to contain other asbestos construction materials such as pipes, floor tiles, cement and panels.
Is Asbestos Regulated in the Workplace?
Asbestos has been regulated since the 1970s, with progressively stringent controls added over time. In June 2021, a U.S. District Court judge in California ruled that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency must improve its data collection on asbestos imports, some of which could pose hazards in the workplace.
The EPA completed Part 1 of its risk evaluation of chrysotile asbestos in December 2020, and found unreasonable risks to workers. Several other sources of occupational exposure were identified, including aftermarket brakes, brake linings and gaskets. Part 2 of the final risk evaluation is underway and could lead to increased regulation.
In February 2020, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration made a request for public comments about safety measures related to asbestos in the workplace. The goal was to understand what measures companies are taking to protect workers.
The result was an updated version of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which included an expanded list of requirements that companies must follow to protect the health of their workers.
Among the requirements:
- Closer asbestos exposure monitoring, giving every employee the right to know what their exposure level is.
- A compliance program designed to more aggressively limit employee exposure to asbestos.
- Respiratory protection to better protect employees exposed to potential airborne contaminants.
- Protective work clothing and equipment, along with maintenance and disposal procedures to prevent anyone from coming in dangerous contact with them.
- Better communication of hazards to employees, including warning signs and labels at place of work.
- A medical surveillance program to monitor employees who are exposed to airborne contaminants.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, OSHA progressively reduced permissible asbestos concentrations in the workplace. These measures helped limit the risk of workers developing related diseases. But the consequences of poor regulation are still risking workers’ lives because it takes decades for asbestos-related diseases to develop. This is known as the latency period.
OSHA enacted laws in 1997 that further limited the level of asbestos to 0.1 fibers per cubic centimeter at any job site. Employers are required to provide safe working conditions. They’re also required to provide protective clothing and equipment to employees who work around asbestos.
You can file a report if you suspect an employer isn’t providing safe conditions to protect workers from asbestos exposure. File a complaint with OSHA by calling or visiting a local OSHA office.
How to Minimize the Hazards of Asbestos
Federal, state and local laws are in place that require employers to protect workers from asbestos exposure in the workplace.
Agencies have established laws and regulations requiring employers to provide safe working conditions and proper training and safety equipment to prevent asbestos exposure. These agencies include the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Consumer Product Safety Commission and the Mine Safety and Health Administration.
For example, the EPA enacted the Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act, better known as AHERA, to regulate asbestos in schools to protect students, teachers and administrators. It is part of the Toxic Substances Control Act, which lists asbestos as a toxic substance.
OSHA established laws and regulations specifically for asbestos in the workplace, including unique requirements for the construction industry.
Who to Contact if Workplace Asbestos Exposure Is Suspected
If you are concerned about asbestos exposure at your job, you may file anonymous complaints with OSHA and the Mine Safety and Health Administration. Other agencies provide resources, education and training to protect workers from occupational asbestos exposure.
Occupational Safety and Health Administration
Workers may file an anonymous complaint with OSHA if asbestos exposure is suspected. The administration monitors asbestos in the workplace, issues fines and may shut down operations if asbestos rules are violated.
OSHA Complaint Line: 800-321-6742 (OSHA)
Mine Safety and Health Administration
Miners concerned about asbestos exposure in mining operations may file anonymous complaints with the Mine Safety and Health Administration. The administration has the authority to conduct inspections and issue citations and fines for asbestos violations.
MSHA Complaint Line: 800-746-1553
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
The EPA sets federal asbestos regulations, issues fines and enforces criminal penalties for violating asbestos laws. The EPA’s Asbestos Ombudsman provides information to the public on the handling, abatement and management of asbestos in homes, schools and the workplace.
EPA’s Asbestos Ombudsman Line: 800-368-5888
National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health
The institute, also known as NIOSH, helps define asbestos rules and regulations but has no enforcement power. It offers education and training to workers on the dangers of asbestos and proper safety procedures involving abatement.
NIOSH Information Line: 800-CDC-INFO (800-232-4636)
Compensation for Occupational Exposure to Asbestos
Workers who develop mesothelioma or any other asbestos-related disease may be eligible for compensation.
Types of legal compensation for mesothelioma include:
- Trust fund claims
- Lawsuits that result in settlements or verdicts
- VA claims
- Workers’ compensation
Compensation is sought from asbestos manufacturers who made asbestos products. These manufacturers are held liable for the diseases their asbestos products caused. Some of the manufacturers have set up asbestos trust funds, while others handle legal claims through settlements or trials.
Workers who develop an asbestos-related illness should find an expert mesothelioma lawyer to guide them through the legal process.
Navy veterans were exposed to so much asbestos while serving that they make up nearly 30% of all mesothelioma lawsuits. Veterans also have the option of filing VA claims to access mesothelioma compensation. The VA offers disability compensation, aid and attendance, health care and other benefits.
Common Questions About Occupational Asbestos Exposure
- What occupations are most at risk for asbestos exposure?
The occupations most at risk for developing malignant mesothelioma disease after asbestos exposure include firefighters, construction workers, industrial and power plant workers and shipyard workers. These workers regularly handle asbestos-containing materials in high volumes.
- What should I do if I think I have been exposed to asbestos at work?
If you suspect you have a history of occupational asbestos exposure, speaking with a top mesothelioma doctor is the first step to diagnosis and treatment. Pleural and peritoneal mesothelioma doctors specialize in advanced treatment options to limit the spread and progression of this rare disease.
- Is it dangerous to work in a building with asbestos?
No amount of asbestos exposure is safe. However, one-time exposures or short-term asbestos exposures do not present a significant risk. Long-term work in a building with asbestos may lead to repeated and cumulative exposures, which can increase the risk of developing mesothelioma years later.
- Can I claim compensation against a past employer for asbestos exposure?
If a past employer neglected to protect you from asbestos exposure, you are likely eligible to file a legal claim for asbestos compensation. Payment from a legal claim or settlement varies by case but is sometimes available within months of filing. A lawyer or mesothelioma law firm that specializes in asbestos litigation can help you file a claim.