Because of the variety of things these plants create, workers tackle various tasks: delivering materials to processing areas, dumping ingredients into hoppers, operating machines to heat, cool and agitate chemical solutions, filling and fastening covers on containers and attaching labels and information on products.
There are a few job descriptions identified by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, including:
- Chemical equipment operators and tenders: Operate or tend equipment that controls chemical changes or reactions in the processing of industrial or consumer products. Equipment used includes de-vulcanizers, steam-jacketed kettles and reactor vessels.
- Chemical technicians: Use special instruments and techniques to help chemists and chemical engineers in researching, developing and producing chemical products and processes.
- Chemists: Study the structures, compositions, reactions and other properties of substances. They use their knowledge to develop new and improved products, processes and materials.
- Mixing and blending machine setters, operators and tenders: Set up, operate or tend machines that mix or blend chemicals.
- Packaging and filling machine operators and tenders: Operate or tend machines that prepare products for storage or shipment.
The chemical industry is an essential contributor to the U.S. economy, with shipments valued at almost $555 billion per year. There are about 13,500 U.S chemical manufacturing facilities that are owned by more than 9,000 companies. The specialty batch chemical sector is composed primarily of small companies, with more than 89 percent employing 500 or fewer employees.
Although these plants contribute significantly to the U.S. economy, they also contributed to the poor health of some of their employees. Those who worked in plants between the 1930s and 1970s were exposed to asbestos, which was used in the industry because of its highly chemical-resistant properties. Workers who currently work in these plants are at a much lower risk for asbestos exposure, but asbestos-containing material may still be found in buildings, machinery and equipment that were made prior to the 1980s.
Products and Locations
Workers were exposed to different types of asbestos products such as:
- Machinery and Equipment: Asbestos is most widely known for its heat and fiber resistant properties, but asbestos is also resistant to chemical reactions, making it a vital insulation component in chemical plant machinery and equipment such as pipes, pumps, valves, furnaces, boilers, ovens and driers, radiator stop-leak products, Bunsen burner pads, gaskets, mixers and grinders.
- Building Material: A variety of building material used to build chemical plants contain asbestos such as paint films, sealants, molding compounds, bench and counter tops, cement block primers and elastomers, which are used for seals, adhesives and molded flexible parts.
- Protective Clothing: As asbestos is known for protecting against heat and burns, it also is resistant to chemical reactions, which is why it was incorporated into protective clothing for chemical plant workers, such as gloves, aprons, coveralls and facemasks.
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These workers faced a number of hazards during their career. While exposure to the strong and potentially toxic chemicals their companies produced was an evident threat, many workers were also affected by asbestos, a natural mineral that was frequently used.
Those who maintained and repaired equipment and machinery are at the highest risk for asbestos exposure, because they would cut, remove and replace layers of asbestos insulation daily. During this process, asbestos fibers can be released into the air and then inhaled. The accumulation of inhaled fibers can cause inflammation and scarring that may lead to the development of mesothelioma cancer and other asbestos-related illnesses.
Even supervisors or people who worked in the area where a repair was conducted could have been exposed to asbestos dust and fibers. Sometimes workers were exposed to asbestos when they conducted small repairs instead of paying a repairman, such as sealing pipes with asbestos powder. Workers could have also been exposed if they simply brushed against an insulated pipe or other insulated equipment and disturbed asbestos, releasing fibers to be inhaled.
Asbestos gaskets were used to prevent leakage between solid surfaces in plants. During routine gasket removal, workers and mechanics were exposed to asbestos fibers.
Asbestos was also commonly used during the construction of these plants. Asbestos has been added to concrete as a lubricant, allowing the concrete to be pumped through a hose during construction. Cement blocks are a major component in building chemical plants, which also contained asbestos. Any worker who came across damaged building materials may have been exposed to and inhaled asbestos fibers.
Prior to and during the late 1970s, asbestos was used in chemicals and plastics as a filler or reinforcing agent. Asbestos fibers were commonly added to molding compounds and fireproofing sprays. Asbestos compounds were also used in chemicals used for insulation and sealants. Phenolic compounds that were produced and distributed to plastic manufacturers also commonly contained asbestos.
Workers often wore asbestos-laden protective garments, including gloves, aprons, coveralls and facemasks to protect them from extreme temperatures and while working with toxic materials. After daily wear and tear of these garments, fibers within the clothing were released and could be inhaled by workers.
A 35-year study conducted from 1953 to 1988 of workers of a Norwegian electrochemical plant that produced nitric acid found that workers who packed the joints in incinerators were exposed to high concentrations of asbestos dust.
Different types of asbestos were used for various purposes in the production of nitric acid in chemical plants. Large asbestos packing, mainly crocidolite asbestos, but also serpentine and amphibole asbestos, were used to pack the joints in the incinerators, which combusted ammonia and nitrogen oxides. Maintenance work on the 79 incinerators was continuous and workers were exposed to asbestos in the incinerators daily. Considerable amounts of asbestos dust were generated in the warm dry atmosphere of the incinerator hull when old, dry packing material was replaced.
In a study conducted in the 1970s, several large groups of chemical plant workers had chest x-rays taken, and abnormalities associated with asbestos, such as small irregular opacities and pleural changes, were found in a portion of those examined. A cross-sectional study of 185 maintenance workers in a large chemical plant found that nearly 60 percent of those examined showed symptoms of asbestosis and pre-cancerous conditions.
Former chemical plant worker Thomas Brown is part of arguably the most controversial asbestos-related lawsuit in U.S. history. Brown won the richest jury award from his lawsuit – $322 million from Chevron Phillips Chemical Co. and Union Carbide Corporation – after he claimed he was exposed to asbestos while on the job. He sued after he was diagnosed with asbestosis. His failing health required him to use oxygen 24 hours a day, and he blamed the company for his misfortune. The jury awarded Brown $300 million in punitive damages and $22 million in actual damages.
However, Mississippi Circuit Judge Eddie Bowen threw out the landmark verdict, ruling Brown should have disclosed that his parents previously were involved in an asbestos-related lawsuit against one of the defending companies. The case is ongoing.
On March 17, 2011, a Texas family won a lawsuit against Dow Chemical and Alcoa Aluminum claiming Robert Henderson died of mesothelioma cancer because of asbestos exposure he received while working at Dow for 10 months in 1967 and for 29 years at an Alcoa Aluminum plant in Pittsburgh.
Attorneys representing the Henderson family claimed that Henderson’s death was caused by his daily exposure to Dow Chemical’s asbestos-containing insulators. The Henderson family was awarded a total of $9 million. Dow Chemical is responsible for 30 percent of the awarded amount and Alcoa Aluminum is responsible for the remaining 70 percent.
Dow Chemical Co. is seeking to overturn the verdict claiming that the company is only responsible for 3 percent of the awarded amount as Henderson only worked for Dow for 10 months and must have been significantly exposed to asbestos during his time at Alcoa Aluminum.
Chevron Phillips Chemical Co., Dow Chemical Co., DuPont, Durez Corporation, General Electric Company, Hill Brothers Chemical, Hooker Chemical Plant, Monsanto Chemical Plant, Rogers Corporation, Rostone Inc., Union Carbide Corporation and Westinghouse Corporation have been involved in asbestos litigation for exposing chemical plant workers.
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Last Modified October 26, 2018
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