According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, more than 75 occupational groups have exposed workers to asbestos. The effect of daily exposure over the span of a career has led many workers to develop asbestos-related diseases, including mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis. Learn more about the occupations and industries that place people at risk of asbestos exposure.
Asbestos is 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, including fire-retardant coatings, concrete and cement, bricks, pipes, gaskets, insulation, drywall, flooring, roofing, joint compound, paints and sealants. It exists in electrical appliances, plastics, rubber, mattresses, flowerpots, lawn furniture, hats and gloves.
National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health
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, which helped limit the risk of workers developing the disease. However, the consequences from the lack of regulation are still lingering.
Asbestos still can be 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.
Workers in high-risk jobs tend to handle asbestos in significant concentrations on a regular basis. Mining is the profession with the greatest potential for dangerous asbestos exposure. Although asbestos is no longer directly mined in the U.S., many American miners over the years have suffered from asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma because asbestos contaminated the substances they mined.
The most notorious incident occurred in W.R. Grace and Co.’s vermiculite mine in Libby, Montana, where hundreds of vermiculite miners and their families died of asbestosis and mesothelioma. The R.T. Vanderbilt talc mines in upstate New York are other examples. Both of these mines had dangerous levels of tremolite asbestos interlaced with the extracted minerals.
A 1979 study found blue-collar occupations were more heavily associated with asbestos exposure.
According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, construction jobs were listed on the death certificates of almost 25 percent of workers who deaths were caused by asbestosis.
Moderate-risk jobs place employees in conditions where they may work directly or indirectly with asbestos materials. The concentration of asbestos fibers in such working environments can range from low to high and may vary by day and jobsite.
Some jobs in this category expose workers to low levels of asbestos, 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. Regardless of the concentration, asbestos fibers can accumulate in the body over time and cause biological changes that lead to cancer.
Low-risk jobs infrequently place workers at risk of asbestos exposure. The concentration of asbestos 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 someone is exposed regularly for years.
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Because asbestos was commonly used in the building of battleships and destroyers throughout most of the last century, a large number of Navy veterans were exposed to asbestos as shipbuilders or sailors. In fact, all divisions of the U.S. Armed Forces used asbestos in the construction of buildings, aircraft and automobiles.
Fortunately, the Navy Public Works Center (PWC) Lead and Asbestos Abatement Team in June 1999 began reducing the presence of lead and asbestos in shipyards using ice blasting technology. This technique is favored in the cleaning of historic structures because it decreases the amount of hazardous waste produced and minimizes dust, decreasing the risk of dangerous asbestos exposure.
Another occupation that places workers at risk for asbestos exposure is asbestos remediation and decontamination. As older buildings with asbestos in their walls, floors, attics, ceilings and roofs are torn down, demolition crews, bulldozer and crane operators, and other laborers can become exposed to asbestos dust.
More recently it was discovered that mechanics and operators of Linotype machines used in large-scale printing operations are susceptible to asbestos exposure. Workers in several unlikely occupations, such as baking and painting, also faced asbestos exposure.
OSHA enacted laws in 1997 that further limited the presence of asbestos to 0.1 fibers per cubic centimeter at any jobsite. Employers are required to provide safe working conditions and protective clothing and equipment to employees working around asbestos. 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.
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.