Occupational Asbestos Exposure

Occupational asbestos exposure is the No. 1 cause of mesothelioma cancer. Repeated exposure to asbestos on the job puts workers at risk of several cancers and serious pulmonary diseases. Learn more about the occupations and industries that place people at risk of asbestos exposure.

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Asbestos Exposure at Work

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.

Working with asbestos products puts your health at risk. Asbestos exposure is proven to cause cancer and other serious diseases.

According to the Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry, an estimated 27 million workers were exposed to asbestos between 1940 and 1979. Regulations have reduced the risk of exposure in the workplace, but a degree of risk remains for many occupations.

According to National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, exposures to asbestos above the recommended limit declined from 6.3 percent of workers from 1987 to 1994 to 4.3 percent in 2000 to 2003.

75+ Occupational Groups Exposed Workers to Asbestos

National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health

Asbestos Regulation

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) didn’t regulate asbestos exposure in the workplace until 1971. 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 lingering because it takes decades for asbestos-related diseases to develop, which is known as the latency period.

Asbestos Exposure Today

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.

A surprising number of products are still made with asbestos, including automobile brakes and clutches, roofing materials and several other construction products.

Learn more about asbestos hotspots in your state

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Top Five At-Risk Occupations for Asbestos Exposure

  • Construction Workers

    Construction Worker

    • Thousands of construction products contained asbestos before the 1980s.
    • Demolition crews and home renovators are among the most at risk of exposure.
    • Roofing and flooring materials are still made with asbestos. This places current workers on new projects at risk of exposure.
  • Firefighter

    Firefighter

    • Fires damage asbestos products, causing the fibers to become airborne.
    • Asbestos is 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 Worker

    Industrial Worker

    • Industrial workers include mechanics, foremen, trade laborers, chemical workers and machinery operators.
    • Workers were exposed to asbestos in paper, textiles, gaskets, insulation and fireproofing.
    • Industrial insulators are among the most at risk of exposure in the industry.
  • Power Plant Worker

    Power Plant Worker

    • Heat-resistant products were the most common sources of asbestos exposure. Examples include fireproofing spray and pipe insulation.
    • Cutting old asbestos pipes remains an exposure threat to power plant workers.
    • A study found nearly 33 percent of power plant workers had asbestos in mucus samples.
  • Shipyard Worker

    Shipyard Worker

    • Nearly 30 percent of mesothelioma lawsuits are filed by veterans and government shipyard workers.
    • Boiler workers experienced high exposures. So did those working on the construction, demolition and repair of vessels.
    • Juries awarded shipyard workers multimillion-dollar verdicts in lawsuits against asbestos product manufacturers.

Occupations at High Risk of Asbestos Exposure

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Workers in high-risk jobs tend to handle asbestos in high concentrations on a regular basis.

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. Hundreds of vermiculite miners and their families died of asbestosis and mesothelioma in Libby. The R.T. Vanderbilt talc mines in upstate New York are other examples. These mines had dangerous levels of tremolite asbestos interlaced with the extracted minerals.

Construction jobs are a major source of asbestos exposure in the U.S. About 25 percent of people who die of asbestosis worked in the construction industry, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Top industries and jobsites for asbestosis and mesothelioma deaths include:

  • Construction
  • Ship and boat building and repairing
  • Agricultural
  • Industrial and chemicals
  • Railroads
  • Hospitals
  • Miscellaneous nonmetallic mineral and stone products
  • General government (not elsewhere classified)
  • Electrical light and power
  • Elementary and secondary schools
  • Blast furnaces, steelworks, rolling and finishing mills
  • Other manufacturing industries

Occupations at Moderate Risk of Asbestos Exposure

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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 jobsite.

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.

Occupations at Low Risk of Asbestos Exposure

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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, jobsite or product is encountered. Even low-level asbestos concentrations can cause mesothelioma if exposure occurs regularly for years.

Occupations with a low risk of asbestos exposure include:

Other Occupations at Risk of Asbestos Exposure

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U.S. Navy Veterans

Asbestos was commonly used in the building of 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.

In June 1999, the Navy Public Works Center (PWC) 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 their 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.

Other Occupations

Mechanics and operators of Linotype machines used in large-scale printing operations are at risk of asbestos exposure. Workers in several unlikely occupations, such as baking and painting, also were at risk of exposure.

Other occupations where asbestos exposure was common include:

  • Aerospace workers
  • Bakers
  • Building inspectors
  • Excavator
  • Floor coverers
  • Glass factory workers
  • Job and die setters
  • Longshoremen
  • Machinists
  • Mixing operatives
  • Painters
  • Refinery workers
  • Road workers
  • Rubber workers
  • Sawyers
  • Technicians
  • Tile setters
  • Tinsmiths
  • Toll Collectors
  • Warehouse workers
  • Weavers
  • Brake and clutch manufacturers
  • Packing and gasket manufacturing workers
  • Protective clothing manufacturers
  • Contractors and building managers

Asbestos Exposure Laws

OSHA enacted laws in 1997 that further limited the level of asbestos to 0.1 fibers per cubic centimeter at any jobsite. 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.

Learn more about asbestos legislation

Compensation for Mesothelioma

Workers who develop mesothelioma or any other asbestos-related disease may be eligible for compensation.

Types of legal compensation for mesothelioma include:

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 experienced mesothelioma lawyer to guide them through the legal process.

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Michelle Whitmer, Content Writer at Asbestos.com

Joining the team in February 2008 as a writer and editor, Michelle Whitmer has translated medical jargon into patient-friendly information at Asbestos.com for more than eight years. Michelle is a registered yoga teacher, a member of the Academy of Integrative Health & Medicine, and was quoted by The New York Times on the risks of asbestos exposure. Read More

Last Modified May 2, 2018
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