How Were Boilermakers Exposed to Asbestos?
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, boiler work involves boilermakers who produce and install the machines and boiler operators who oversee their daily use in engine rooms or boiler rooms. Asbestos exposure hazards are present for both types of workers through cleaning, adjusting or repairing the equipment.
Boiler workers and boilermakers are two occupations most frequently exposed to asbestos and carry the highest risks for asbestos-related disease. The danger comes from regular operation and attendance of the machinery.
Asbestos in boilers is common in boiler rooms in many countries. Between 1986 and 1995, doctors diagnosed close to 100 cases of mesothelioma in boiler workers in Australia.
Historically, boiler workers would cut half-rounds of pre-molded asbestos insulation to cover stretches of pipe. Installing these rounds would disturb the material and release asbestos dust into the air. Boiler rooms were typically small and poorly ventilated, often containing other asbestos sources, such as cement millboard in the ceiling.
Industrial hygienist William Ewing, an expert witness in several asbestos cases, testified that asbestos boiler work risked “significant exposure.” Boiler operators commonly made repairs using loose asbestos fibers, asbestos tape or other asbestos-containing products. Some manufacturers recommended that workers make asbestos cement for pipe repair.
Boilermakers encountered similar sources of exposure during production. Many boilers in use today still contain asbestos insulation to protect the inner machinery from heat. A 2005 survey found that 47% of the 163,000 industrial and commercial boilers in the United States are more than 40 years old, and only 7% are less than 10 years old.
During construction, boilermakers would spray asbestos on structural beams and columns to prevent them from warping or collapsing in a fire. Many rigging components, such as slings and chain falls, can disturb asbestos-containing materials within boilers, releasing the toxic dust.
Asbestos Products Associated with Boiler Workers
Paul Schuelke, director of product compliance for the boiler manufacturer Weil-McLain, once explained to a jury that asbestos use in sectional boilers was an industry standard. In most boilers, a one-inch layer of asbestos insulation surrounded the machine’s heated components. The boiler’s stove often sat between slabs of asbestos cement.
Asbestos in boilers exists at industrial worksites, such as refineries, factories or power plants, and those in schools, ships and military installations. These locations are also likely sources of asbestos exposure for HVAC mechanics, industrial machinery workers and power plant workers.
Asbestos-containing products in boilers vary based on the manufacturer but can include any of the following:
- Boiler insulation
- Pipe insulation
- Cement lining
- Rope lining
- Raw asbestos
- Fire retardant bricks
- Hand holes
- Heat jackets
- Paste lagging
- Access windows
Asbestos insulation included a mix of asbestos with magnesium carbonate and calcium silicate, and asbestos fibers often made up 6% to 15% of the insulation’s net weight. Popular brands of insulation such as Air-Cell and Air-O-Cell contained between 75% and 90% chrysotile asbestos.
Manufacturers Who Made Products Boilermakers Used
Boiler and boiler parts manufacturers have a long history of asbestos use due to its affordability, heat resistance and tensile strength. The material was easy to incorporate into many products and mixed well with other substances.
However, the toxicity and long-term health effects of asbestos in boilers, such as malignant mesothelioma cancer, would eventually lead to years of litigation for these and hundreds of other companies that manufactured asbestos products.
- Weil-McLain: Starting in the 1950s, Weil-McLain used asbestos in its boiler production process for over two decades.
- Asbestos Corporation Limited: This company was a supplier of asbestos fibers for boiler production, packing, gaskets and insulation materials.
- Burnham Corporation: Burnham Commercial manufactured asbestos-containing boilers, boiler insulation, gaskets, bricks and pipe insulation over many years.
- Crown Boiler Company: In 2019, electrician Ira Ritz named Crown Boiler Company in a lawsuit alleging that Crown’s asbestos products caused his lung cancer.
- Babcock & Wilcox: Babcock & Wilcox used asbestos-containing insulation, gaskets, heat seals, rope packing, block and millboard in its utility boilers.
- Cleaver-Brooks: Many portable boilers produced by Cleaver-Brooks contained asbestos fibers, gaskets, insulation and lining for heat resistance and fire protection.
- John Crane Inc.: In 2011, a jury awarded Navy veteran William Mansir $2.4 million in a mesothelioma boilermakers case involving Crane boilers and asbestos products.
- Foster Wheeler: Beyond manufacturing and distributing, Foster Wheeler supplied asbestos-containing boiler components to the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Merchant Marine.
- Ingersoll Rand: In 2008, Ingersoll Rand acquired Trane, formerly known as American Standard Companies Inc., an HVAC supplier of asbestos components.
Mesothelioma and Boilermakers
According to a 2022 report by the European Commission, over 70,000 workers died in 2019 from past exposure to asbestos.
An April 2020 report in the International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health reported that nearly 4,500 mesothelioma deaths are likely to occur by the year 2027 due to improper handling of asbestos in boilers.
The American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine examined a cohort of over 1,800 trade workers, including boiler workers and boilermakers. Its 2019 study reported that 38% of workers developed asbestosis, a form of pulmonary fibrosis. Also, 45% of participants developed pleural plaques, an early sign of asbestos-related disease.
In 2007, researchers from the University of Michigan and Wayne State University published a study on asbestos-related health issues in unionized boilermakers. Roughly 30% of the boilermakers with more than 20 years’ experience showed pleural abnormalities on their imaging scans.
Recently, an independent company ran a test to see how much exposure to asbestos would occur during boiler slag removal. Slagging is the formation of deposits on boiler surfaces. Workers faced exposure levels more than 4.5 times greater than the researchers had expected; the airborne asbestos fiber concentration was 1.171 fibers per milliliter of air. Boiler workers and boilermakers who have a known history of asbestos exposure or who develop symptoms of asbestos-related diseases should consult with a physician at the first sign of illness. Mesothelioma in boilermakers has a long latency period and is particularly challenging to diagnose, often requiring a mesothelioma specialist for advanced treatment.
Mesothelioma Lawsuits Involving Boiler Workers
In one case, a mesothelioma patient named Clarence Nolan filed a lawsuit against 12 different corporations, including the boiler manufacturer Weil-McLain. The 11 other companies settled out of court, but the case against Weil-McLain advanced to a jury trial; there, Nolan testified to servicing the company’s boilers roughly 25 times over a period of 38 years. He also testified that none of the asbestos products bore a warning label. The jury ultimately awarded him a $2,368,000 verdict.
Another case linked a boiler room insulation worker’s asbestosis diagnosis to occupational exposure. He spent 22 years molding pipe and duct insulation for boiler room equipment before retiring from health complications. He primarily worked with Keene’s and Owens’ products, such as their asbestos-laden Kaylo insulation. After deliberations, the jury returned a verdict of just over $878,500.
A few years later, a Los Angeles jury awarded former boiler operator William Pfeifer $22.7 million after he was diagnosed with mesothelioma. His primary exposure came from asbestos packing and gaskets, which he applied to boilers at various military locations. The jury decided product manufacturer John Crane, Inc. was responsible for 70 percent of the damages.
In another lawsuit, a Navy veteran’s widow filed a case on behalf of her late husband. Before he passed way from mesothelioma, he had spent four years as a boiler repair shop worker. He was exposed to asbestos at the Long Beach Naval Shipyard, as well as on the U.S.S. Klondike, while working with Foster Wheeler boilers. He never saw any warning labels on the boilers, nor was he ever told to wear respiratory protection. The jury ruled in favor of the widow but did not release the amount of the verdict.
In July 2013, a New York jury awarded $190 million to five tradesmen, finding that two boiler companies, Burnham and Cleaver-Brooks, acted negligently and recklessly. It was the largest verdict of its kind in New York history. The verdict was the product of 18 months of research and preparation by the team at Weitz & Luxenberg, which represented the plaintiffs — two of whom passed away before the trial.
Compensation for Boiler Workers Exposed to Asbestos
A mesothelioma lawsuit filed against boiler manufacturer Cleaver-Brooks in 2019 is proceeding after the Colorado plaintiff had enough evidence for the case to move forward. Another 2019 lawsuit involved mesothelioma survivor Lynda Berry. A Louisiana appellate panel awarded a $2.25 million verdict after she sued boiler producer Foster Wheeler.
In a July 2018 case, a U.K. family was awarded $320,000 after their mother died from secondhand asbestos exposure linked to the boiler product manufacturer Babcock & Wilcox. In July 2013, a New York jury awarded $190 million to five workers, finding that two boiler companies, Burnham and Cleaver-Brooks, acted negligently and recklessly.
The 2013 case was the largest verdict of its kind in New York history. The verdict was the product of 18 months of research and preparation by the team at Weitz & Luxenberg, which represented the plaintiffs.
In one case, a mesothelioma patient and long-time boiler worker named Clarence Nolan filed a lawsuit against 12 different corporations, including the boiler manufacturer Weil-McLain. The jury ultimately awarded him a $2,368,000 verdict. Boiler workers, boilermakers and shipyard workers file nearly 30% of all mesothelioma lawsuits. Many compensation options exist for workers exposed to asbestos in their occupation. Finding an attorney specializing in asbestos cases offers the best chance for boiler workers to receive compensation for otherwise avoidable illness and disease.