Written By: Matt Mauney, Last modified: March 16, 2021
Quick Facts
  • National Employment:
    Industrial: 211,490; Civil: 254,130; Environmental: 50,350
  • Similar Occupations:
    Architectural and Engineering Managers, Cost Estimators, Health and Safety Engineers, Engineering Technicians, Production Managers, Logisticians, Management Analysts, Materials Engineers, Quality Inspectors
  • Previously Exposed:
  • Still Being Exposed:
  • Asbestos-Related Disease Risk:
  • States with Highest Employment:
    Michigan, California, Texas, Environmental: California, Florida, Texas, New York, Pennsylvania

Some engineers design new products that not only meet a consumer need but also are safe and cost-effective. Others oversee testing and production in factories where goods are produced. Their job encompasses tasks as analyzing factors that cause a component not to function properly and as testing products for quality assurance.

A 2016 Epidemiology and Health study reported the rates of asbestos-related cancer in Swedish workers from 1961 to 2009. Compared to the general population, the incidence of pleural mesothelioma was 67 percent higher for mechanical engineers and 606 percent higher for ships’ engineers.

Engineers today rely heavily on computers to create and analyze designs; to test machinery and system operation; to develop specifications for repair parts; and to track product quality.

There are more than 25 engineering specialties identified by professional societies, including:

  • Aerospace Engineers – design and develop aircraft and spacecraft that are used in aviation, defense systems, and space exploration.
  • Civil Engineers – design and oversee the construction of roads, buildings, airports, bridges, and other infrastructure. They were one of the largest occupational groups in 2010.
  • Electrical Engineers – design and oversee the development of electrical equipment, such as motors, machinery controls, wiring in buildings, and radar and navigation systems. They can also be in the design of control and transmission devices used by utilities.
  • Mechanical Engineers – design and develop engines and machinery. They create electric generators, internal combustion engines, and steam and gas turbines. They also work on refrigeration and air conditioning equipment.
  • Nuclear Engineers – design the processes that are used to harness the power of nuclear energy and to safely dispose of nuclear waste.

Engineer Products and Locations

Engineers within the various types of classifications were exposed to different asbestos products, such as:

  • Construction Products: Civil engineers used asbestos-containing products in a number of constructions. Asbestos sheets and boards, a combination of asbestos and Portland cement, were used for false ceilings, partitions, sign boards and wall insulation. Asbestos cement pipes were used as boundary wall pipes, rainwater pipes and ventilating pipes.
  • Electrical Products: Older cast-iron switch gear used in electrical engineering designs contained asbestos flash strips, separators, and rope gasket door seals. These are products that can have a high asbestos content.
  • Reactors: One way in which nuclear engineers were exposed to asbestos was through their work on sodium cooled reactors; which were insulated with asbestos-containing pipe coverings, asbestos valve packing, and powdered asbestos that was mixed with water to repair damaged insulation.

Occupational Exposure for Engineers

Regardless of the type of engineer, their exposure to asbestos was usually not the result of direct handling, but rather as the result of supervising the workers who installed the asbestos products called for in their designs.

Even though the work can be computer-driven, it is also very much hands-on, and it always has been. That has led to engineers being exposed to many of the same dangers as production-line employees, including those who were endangered by asbestos.

Historically, various types of engineers were exposed to asbestos because of their work with operations or equipment that operated at extremely high temperatures. Asbestos insulation was used to maintain temperature control.

Scientific Studies Involving Engineers

A study conducted by researchers from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) evaluated the relationship between high occupational asbestos exposure and the occurrence of gastrointestinal cancer. They analyzed death certificate data from 4,943,566 individuals from 28 states from 1979 through 1990. Statistical data for the incidence of mesothelioma was used to identify occupations having a high level of exposure. Researchers used these same statistics to calculate the number of gastrointestinal cancer deaths after eliminating deaths from other causes like mesothelioma and lung cancer.

The analysis revealed that while increased risk for gastrointestinal cancer was not an issue for mechanical and electrical engineers, elevated risk for colorectal cancer was.

Asbestos Exposure Lawsuits Involving Engineers

David Bean was employed as an engineer with Bristol Water from the 1950s until he retired in 1992. He repaired and maintained pumping stations that were covered with asbestos cement insulation. This insulation had to be removed for repairs, but Bean was not given protective gear of any kind to protect him from inhaling asbestos fibers.

Bean was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2010 and died in 2011. His wife Jean filed the asbestos-related lawsuit, and she received a jury award of more than $450,000.

Manufacturers Who Made Products Used by Engineers

ABB Ltd manufactured asbestos power transformers.

Combustion Engineering manufactured boilers and boiler products that contained asbestos.

Both companies were named defendants in lawsuits.

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