In the late 19th century, Ottmar Mergenthaler introduced a printing machine that could produce an entire line of text at one time. This machine - the linotype - was a significant leap above existing technology, which at the time printed only single letters or words. The printing industry adopted linotypes as the gold standard for efficient printing.
As demand for the machines grew, so did the demand for technicians to install, inspect and repair them. Some high-production printing companies (like afternoon newspapers) employed a full-time mechanical crew to keep 50-plus machines running smoothly. Technicians were responsible for routine maintenance, like polishing the machines and adjusting temperature settings, as well as advanced repairs on malfunctioning parts.
Linotypes contained asbestos insulation to prevent the internal parts from overheating; during repairs, technicians could easily disturb - and potentially inhale - the carcinogenic fibers. So, like many mechanics of that era, these technicians had an elevated risk of asbestos exposure. Although this occupation is not among those most associated with the development of mesothelioma, there are documented asbestos lawsuits from former linotype technicians.
The need for these technicians plateaued in the 1960s and started to decline in the 1970s, when lithographs became the preferred printing machine. By 1987, the job description no longer appeared in the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Occupational Outlook Handbook.
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Each linotype manufacturer used different mixes of cements and sprays to protect the searing metal parts inside the machine. The blends were similar in one regard: it was fairly universal to incorporate some form of heat-resistant asbestos into them.
Asbestos cement was used to insulate the pot of molten lead known as a crucible. The crucible was located directly near the pump well, which required heat to function. To prevent the lead from overheating the rest of the machine, technicians commonly jacketed it with asbestos cement. In some cases, they simply packed raw asbestos fibers around the crucibles.
Technicians may also have used asbestos products to protect company property – or themselves – from burns. One worker recalled lining the floors with asbestos sheets before putting scalding parts down. He also recalled wearing asbestos gloves and aprons during the process.
Technicians faced several occupational exposure risks. The most common hazard occurred when technicians repaired linotype crucibles. During this process, they would chip off the existing asbestos cement before mixing and applying a new layer over the outside of the pot.
If they had to remove the crucible from the machine – for instance, to replace a damaged terminal -technicians would disconnect the wiring and pry the pot out of the machine with a screwdriver. If two crucibles were to be replaced at the same time, the technicians would melt the metal with a blow torch before removing the parts. Once they had removed the crucible, technicians were required to place wet asbestos into a basin where they would knead it into dough. They would pack this mixture into the jacket and liner and then place the crucible back into the machine.
These tasks often left asbestos residue on the equipment. This meant that even when the technician was not working directly with asbestos, they still faced an exposure risk. When a machine was covered in asbestos dust, simple tasks like wiping soot from the gas burners or tightening the bearings were hazardous. Even visual inspections placed technicians in the vicinity of friable fibers.
No scientific studies were conducted exclusively on linotype workers. However, one 1972 study found a major excess of lung cancer fatalities among newspaper room workers in Manchester. The increase was especially significant in machine room workers, whose responsibilities may have included linotype repairs.
One asbestos-related lawsuit involved David Peterson, who had worked at eight different printing and publishing companies throughout this career. Peterson’s roles, which included apprentice, laborer and printing manager, routinely required him to service linotype machines and printing presses. His legal team linked his occupational history to his diagnoses, and the courts awarded Peterson damages from nine asbestos manufacturers.
In another case, New York courts placed a former linotype worker into an accelerated trial cluster in light of his rapidly advancing mesothelioma diagnosis. He listed Mergenthaler Linotype Company – along with several individual asbestos product manufactures – as contributors to his exposure. The case was settled out of court following an accelerated trial. The defendant passed away in 2011 before the case settled.
Several major manufacturers (including Mergenthaler Linotype Company and the Linotype and Machinery Company) produced linotypes with asbestos products. They sourced these products from multiple corporations, including the Anchor Packing Company, Garlock Sealing Technologies and the United States Rubber Company.
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