Industrial workers are mechanics, foremen and trade laborers who work in specialized production. A handful of these workers repair machinery or operate power and heat systems. Most, however, handle the manual labor aspects of metalwork, woodwork or similar occupations. Welders, molders, millwrights and smelters are all considered industrial workers.
These laborers carry out the chemical or mechanical steps of production. For instance, they may chemically enhance metals or refine minerals for commercial purposes. In many cases, industrial workers use heavy machinery to help them produce materials on a very large scale.
Because most industrial processes generate so much heat, many manufacturers added asbestos as an insulating component to their products. When workers took power tools to these products (or disturbed them in any other way), they faced exposure hazards that placed them at risk for several serious diseases.
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“Nearly every company that owned or maintained conventional industrial plants constructed or renovated prior to the 1970s” may have allowed asbestos products on their premises, according to experts at the Fourth National Forum for Asbestos Litigation. In some cases, these products were construction products such as floor or ceiling tiles. Many plants contained additional asbestos products, such as insulation for their equipment.
Hot engine heaters, autoclaves and gas valves often relied on asbestos to avoid overheating. Heated surfaces (like smelting furnaces) or metal structures also may have had a coat of spray-on insulation from brands like Monokote and Spraycraft. In some cases, asbestos boards covered workbenches where workers used heated tools.
Industrial worksites stocked products from asbestos manufacturers for their workers to use during their own operations. The EPA calls this “asbestos product fabrication.” For instance, industrial workers may have ripped through asbestos paper while creating gaskets or poured asbestos compounds while casting molds. Workers also used asbestos textiles (including rope lagging and braided packing) on a regular basis. Many manufacturers recommended products for use on high-speed rotary and reciprocating shafts, as well as any machinery that processed steam, hot water and steam.
Laborers may also have worn asbestos-contaminated protective gear during certain tasks. One former welder recalled wearing gloves that had a “white, kind of wool-ish . . . material in there that appeared to asbestos.” Co-workers also recalled using other protective products made with flame-retardant, asbestos-treated cotton.
Occupational exposure hazards developed when industrial workers used power or friction tools on asbestos-containing products. Scoring, drilling, grinding or otherwise cutting through those materials released the fibers into the air.
For instance, when creating metal casts, workers would mix together an asbestos and gypsum slurry. They would then spray the slurry on the mold patterns. Once the molds were set, they would pry them out of the casts and bake them in an industrial oven. Then the workers would pour molten metal into the casts to form prototypes and production parts.
Most industrial plants had poor ventilation systems. Airborne fibers tended to circulate throughout the workspace for extended periods of time; this further increased the workers’ risks of occupational exposure.
One large-scale study analyzed the risk of asbestos exposure for various occupational groups. Industrial insulators were the most heavily-exposed group, but welders, millwrights, sheet metal workers, laborers and maintenance workers also sustained significant levels of exposure. Researchers noted that asbestos concentrations in most jobsites began decreasing the mid-1970s, when many companies implemented new industrial hygiene practices.
In a National Cancer Institute-funded peritoneal mesothelioma study, researchers found a significant correlation between the disease and a history of industrial work. They found the most notable risk increases in industrial chemical workers, non-metallic mineral or stone workers and machinery workers.
Another study maintained that esophageal cancer was also a risk for asbestos-exposed welders and flame cutters. They concluded that the occupational chrysotile exposure that these workers often sustained correlated with a twofold increase in risk for squamous cell carcinoma.
In 1993, the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine conducted a study of the asbestos-related disease risks for millwrights and industrial machinery erectors. Visual abnormalities were prevalent on the chest X-rays. Slightly more than 44 percent of the 110 workers showed pleural abnormalities consistent with asbestos-induced complications. The X-rays indicated unilateral pleural thickening and interstitial lung disease for 18 and 13 of the workers, respectively.
Research firm RAND estimated that companies from 90 percent of the industrial occupations recognized by the U.S. Department of Commerce have been involved with asbestos lawsuits.
In one of these cases, a welder earned a $1.29 million verdict in a case against the Hobart Brothers Company, who manufactured asbestos-containing welding rods. For nearly 30 years, the man used these rods to weld electric arcs at a metal fabrication company. He died from asbestos-induced lung cancer a month after he was diagnosed with the disease. His family received the funds from his case.
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’s Tualatin, Oregon jobsite. He also wore asbestos-contaminated protective gear on the jobsite, which further contributed to his exposure. Perman passed away before his case went to trial, and although the circuit court ruled in his favor, they did not release the final verdict.
While most industrial workers seeking compensation have filed tort claims, a handful of employees have pursued workers compensation instead. In one such case, a millwright named Thomas Baptiste testified that job-related responsibilities exposed him to asbestos. He specifically recalled that fumes and dusts contaminated his workspace when he repaired gear boxes and cranes, welded metals and assembled asbestos gaskets. After he retired, he was diagnosed with multiple respiratory diseases, including pneumoconiosis, lung cancer and asbestosis. An appeals court granted Baptiste his worker’s compensation claim.
Many industrial product manufacturers may have produced asbestos-containing products. Some of notable companies involved with asbestos litigation include:
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