Written By: Matt Mauney, Last modified: April 6, 2021
Quick Facts
  • Similar Occupations:
    Industrial factory workers, Assembly plant worker
  • Previously Exposed:
    Yes
  • Still Being Exposed:
    No
  • Asbestos-Related Disease Risk:
    High
  • States with Highest Employment:
    New Jersey, New York, New Hampshire, California, Montana

All work performed in an asbestos factory endangered worker health. These plants had such high levels of asbestos circulating around the plant that every corner of the facility posed an exposure risk.

In 2016, the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health published a study on 1,130 people who had worked at the asbestos plant in Tyler, Texas, from 1954 to 1972. Researchers found that working at the plant had increased the people’s risk of dying from throat or lung cancer by 244 percent.

Occupational Exposure For Asbestos Plant Workers

The asbestos manufacturing process is broken down into five stages:

  1. Bags of raw asbestos that has been milled, screened and separated into fibers arrives at the plant. The workers open the bags to put the fiber bundles into an enclosed fiberizing machine that resembles a drum and has rotary metal beaters. This machine breaks down the fiber bundles into smaller ones. Once this has been completed, the workers place the bundles in bags to be transported to the area where the next stage of the process will be performed.
  2. The mass of fibers is then put through a machine that causes them to pass through “teeth” so the asbestos fibers can be “carded.” This is a method of opening and cleaning impurities from the fibers. This process also separates the fibers into strands and lays them parallel to each other to form a kind of thin web, which is then condensed into a single bundle known as a sliver. The carding stage creates a significant amount of dust per machine that is removed from the work area through ducts.
  3. The asbestos-containing slivers are spun into yarn in the same way as wool and cotton. The spinning machine twists and pulls the slivers into a single yarn.
  4. The yarn is woven on looms into a variety of cloth sizes that include webbing and brake linings.
  5. Other woven cloth is formed into ropes of different sizes for the manufacture of packing. This is known as plaiting.

Scientific Studies Involving Asbestos Plant Workers

Studies show a direct correlation between the higher fiber burden in asbestos plant workers and the increased incidence of asbestos-related diseases among this population. When researchers talk about “fiber burden” they are referring to the number of asbestos bodies in a section of human tissue.

The longer a person worked in an asbestos plant, the greater the number of fibers that accumulated in the tissue inside their lungs. This accumulation, or “lifetime fiber burden,” is directly related to the occurrence of asbestos-related diseases.

A 1998 study by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in 1998 led the agency to warn asbestos textile, friction and packing plant workers about the health risks associated with their occupations. Workers in asbestos plants found that the risk of lung cancer death in the sample population was nearly double that of the general population. The study group consisted of 3,276 individuals. From that group, 63 died from lung cancer.

Another 17 study participants died from mesothelioma, a form of cancer primarily caused by asbestos. Asbestosis, which is a scarring of the lung tissues and other lung diseases, caused an additional 90 deaths in the study group. This is a statistically higher number than the 17 deaths that would typically be predicted based on rates in the general population. The study also showed an increased incidence of death from heart disease among asbestos plant workers, which is likely due to the fact that lung problems frequently lead to heart issues.

Lawsuits Involving Asbestos Plant Workers

In 1974, Reba Rudkin, a former employee in the Johns Manville asbestos manufacturing plant in Pittsburg, California, filed a lawsuit against the company because she developed asbestosis after working in the plant for 29 years. Manville should have been protected from the lawsuit because, at that time, workers’ compensation was the only recourse for an employee suing an employer. Rudkin’s lawyers argued that Manville and its executives should not be protected from fraud and conspiracy charges by workers’ compensation. An asbestos investigation revealed letters that disclosed that the company conspired to conceal knowledge about the hazards of asbestos.

In 1981, the California Supreme Court ruled that workers could sue their employers in situations like those in the Rudkin case. This paved the way for other Pittsburg plant workers to file suits in civil court against Johns Manville. In February 1982, a verdict of $150,000 was granted against Johns Manville.

Asbestos Plant Companies

All of these manufacturers were named as defendants in asbestos lawsuits:

  • Molded Industrial Friction Corp – Alabama
  • Raybestos-Manhattan – Connecticut, California, Indiana
  • Amatex – New Hampshire
  • Johns Manville – New Jersey
  • Bendix Corp – New York

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