Of all the jobs that carry a high risk of potential exposure to asbestos, that of asbestos plant worker ranks as one of them.These factory laborers were exposed to asbestos because handling asbestos is a large part of what they did to earn a living.
Raw asbestos was shipped to asbestos manufacturing plants to be processed into finished products. The primary form of asbestos used in this manufacturing was chrysotile, but some products could require a blend of different types of asbestos.
The finished products were then sold to industries like construction and auto manufacturing/repair for application or installation without the need for any additional modifications to the product. In an asbestos factory, each stage of the process of taking the raw fiber and making it into a textile product endangered workers' health.
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The asbestos manufacturing process is broken down into five stages:
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 amount 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 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.
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. 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.
All of these manufacturers were named as defendants in asbestos lawsuits:
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