Written By: Sean Marchese, MS, RN,
Last modified: June 1, 2021
Quick Facts
  • National Employment, 2019:
  • Similar Occupations:
    Machinists, Chemical Workers, Refinery Workers, Power Distribution Workers
  • Previously Exposed:
  • Still Being Exposed:
  • Asbestos-Related Disease Risk:
  • States with Highest Employment:
    California, Texas, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois

How Are Industrial Workers Exposed to Asbestos?

Industrial workers work in specialized production and include mechanics, forepersons and trade laborers. They handle the manual labor aspects of metalwork, woodwork or similar occupations. Welders, molders, millwrights and smelters are all considered industrial workers.

These workers often repair machinery or operate power and heat systems. Because most industrial processes generate large amounts of heat, many manufacturers added asbestos as an insulating component to their products.

When repairing or operating machinery made with asbestos products, the disturbance generated dangerous dust that placed workers at risk for several serious diseases. The occupational exposure hazards worsened when they used power tools for scoring, drilling, grinding or cutting. 

A 2015 study published in Occupational Environmental Medicine calculated the risk of asbestos-related cancer for different professions. The researchers estimated that industrial workers are over four times more likely to develop pleural mesothelioma than the general population.

Laborers may also have worn asbestos-contaminated protective gear during specific tasks. Gloves and other protective products often included flame-retardant, asbestos-treated cotton. Workers also used raw asbestos in mixtures with gypsum slurry for production molds. 

Most industrial plants had inadequate ventilation systems. Airborne fibers tended to circulate throughout the workspace for extended periods; this further increased the workers’ risks of occupational exposure.

Asbestos Products Associated with Industrial Workers

According to experts at the Fourth National Forum for Asbestos Litigation, nearly every company that owned or maintained conventional industrial plants before the 1970s may have allowed asbestos products on their premises. 

These products included construction materials such as floor or ceiling tiles and insulation for machinery and equipment. Workers were also regularly exposed to asbestos-containing textiles and raw asbestos during daily operations.

Protective Gear Industrial Workers Used

Gloves: To prevent workers from burns, textile manufacturers made gloves with asbestos-treated cotton, making them heat-resistant and fire-retardant.

Aprons: Welders, smelters and other metalworkers wore aprons made with asbestos which protected them from embers and molten metal.

Clothing: Factory workers often wore fire-proof jackets or pants made with asbestos fibers. Over time, the frayed clothing would release breathable asbestos fibers into the air.


Asbestos Machine Parts & Construction Materials

Gas Valves: Asbestos in gas valves prevented overheating when hot gases would pass through.

Autoclaves: Workers used autoclaves for sterilization or processing. Autoclaves superheat tools and materials and relied on asbestos to control temperatures.

Engine Heaters: Manufacturers used asbestos for engine heating products, heated surfaces and metal structures, which frequently involved spray-on insulation. 

Construction Products: Industrial workers often operated in proximity to construction products and materials made with asbestos, including floor tiles, ceiling tiles, insulation and cement.

Products Industrial Workers Used and Manufactured with Asbestos

Asbestos Paper: Manufacturers using asbestos in products often stocked their goods at industrial sites for workers. A common material was asbestos paper used in wraps and packing.

Asbestos Textiles: Workers often used rope lagging and braided packing made with asbestos and recommended for high-speed rotary and reciprocating shafts or hot water machinery.

Metal Work: In addition to using raw asbestos in metal molds and casts, workers involved in hammering, soldering, melting and sandblasting all contributed to increased asbestos exposure and health risk. That danger extended to smelting, refining, forging, welding and stamping.


Manufacturers Who Made Products Industrial Workers Use

Many industrial product manufacturers have produced asbestos-containing products. Notable companies involved with asbestos litigation include:

Vulcan Iron Works Inc.: Based in Pennsylvania, Seattle and San Francisco, Vulcan produced steam locomotives, boilers, engines and mining machinery. 

Eastern Refractories Company: In 2004, a journeyman insulator claimed Eastern was responsible for his mesothelioma after years of working with their ERCO-Mat product.

AK Steel Corporation: Previously one of the largest metalworking companies in the U.S., AK Steel produced products and machinery used by industrial workers. 

Riley Stoker Corporation: Founded in 1890, Riley Stoker manufactured boilers and repair parts that contained asbestos. 

Sterling Fluid: After receiving a mesothelioma diagnosis in 2011, William L. Pace sued Sterling for years of asbestos exposure from their gaskets, pumps and valves. 

Westinghouse: Westinghouse has faced asbestos litigation several times for using asbestos in welding rods, lightbulbs, turbines and other products. Afton Pumps: In 2018, Timothy and Wendy Thomas sued Afton Pumps for asbestos exposure after Timothy’s career as a pipe and sprinkler fitter led to his lung cancer.

Industrial Workers and Mesothelioma

A 2018 study pointed to the iron and steel industries as one of the highest risk sources for occupational asbestos exposure. Workers in iron and steel industries had comparable rates of mesothelioma with those in other primarily asbestos-using industries. 

A German study published in 2016 reported high clusters of malignant mesothelioma patients with backgrounds in shipyard and steelwork. Between 2009 and 2013, German cancer registries reported 7,547 malignant mesothelioma cases, with 90% involving the pleura. 

One large-scale study analyzed the risk of asbestos exposure by occupational groups. Industrial insulators were the most heavily exposed group, but welders, millwrights, sheet metal workers, laborers and maintenance workers also sustained significant exposure levels. 

In 1993, the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine conducted a study of the asbestos-related disease risks for industrial machinists. Slightly more than 44% of the 110 workers showed pleural abnormalities consistent with asbestosis, pleural thickening and interstitial lung disease.

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Legal Options for Industrial Workers Exposed to Asbestos

Research firm RAND estimated that companies from 90% of the industrial occupations recognized by the U.S. Department of Commerce had been defendants in asbestos lawsuits.

In one example, a welder earned a $1.29 million verdict in a lawsuit against the Hobart Brothers Company, which manufactured asbestos-containing welding rods. The plaintiff used these rods for 30 years at a metal fabrication company and died from asbestos lung cancer.

A similar trial involved a former welder and sheet metal mechanic Donald Perman. For 12 years, Perman worked with various asbestos products at American Sheet Metal and wore protective gear made with asbestos. Perman passed away before his case went to trial.

Most industrial workers seek compensation by filing claims with an experienced mesothelioma attorney. Some employees choose to pursue workers’ compensation. In one case, a millwright named Thomas Baptiste testified that asbestos dust contaminated his workspace. 

Thomas repaired gearboxes and cranes, welded metals and assembled asbestos gaskets. After he retired, he was diagnosed with multiple respiratory diseases, including lung cancer and asbestosis. An appeals court granted Baptiste his worker’s compensation claim.

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