Each of these trades exists in branches of the U.S. military and also in the private sector. Areas of the private sector that employ these metal workers are anywhere metals are manufactured or used, including steel mills, factories, industrial plants and the shipbuilding industry.
The job of a metal worker often involves intense fire and heat, which historically led to a heavy reliance on asbestos and its incredible, heat-resistant properties. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has recognized that asbestos exposure has been a problem in the metal works industry.
Workers who have been exposed to toxic asbestos fibers have developed a variety of illnesses, including mesothelioma cancer, which can take up to 50 years to develop after an initial exposure.
In 2015, a British Medical Journal article reported asbestos-related deaths in Belgian workers from 2001 to 2009. The researchers found that metal manufacturing workers are almost three times more likely to die of mesothelioma than the general population.
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Because of the extreme heat metal workers faced on the job, they often were required to wear and use heat-resistant equipment to protect themselves. Gloves, jackets, helmets, masks, aprons and shields all contained asbestos because the mineral was so effective at deflecting heat.
Metal lathers and sheet metal workers often toiled on construction sites, where there was an increased risk of developing asbestos-related illnesses. They worked around insulated walls, floors and ceilings that contained asbestos.
The metal they worked with often was sprayed or coated with an asbestos finish to make it both more durable and resistant to heat. There was asbestos cement, asbestos bricks and a variety of insulation where they worked.
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Cutting or sawing or even disturbing asbestos-treated products released the toxic, microscopic asbestos fibers into the air, where they were inhaled or ingested by workers. Fibers also attached to the clothing worn by the workers. That clothing sometimes made it to the worker’s home, where it exposed family members. This kind of secondary asbestos exposure is known to cause one of a number of asbestos-related diseases.
Another way metal workers were exposed to asbestos was through suspended ceilings and insulated walls that contained asbestos products. Anything that loosened those products released more asbestos fibers.
The welding of metal sheets, the installing of metal studs and drilling into cement often put more asbestos into the air. Metalwork that was performed on Navy ships unleashed streams of asbestos fibers.
New York City sheet metal workers in building construction were exposed to asbestos at dangerously high levels, according to a study done in 1982 by the Occupational Health Program of Montefiore Medical Center and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Much of it involved the use of sprayed asbestos insulation, which was banned in 1972.
A study by the Sheet Metal Occupational Health Institute Trust found that 32 percent of the union workers in the sheet metal industry between 1986 and 1990 had specific lung abnormalities consistent with occupational lung diseases. When the study later was extended to include workers examined until 2004, the percentage dropped to 21 percent, an indication that increased safety measures were helping.
The family of former steel mill metal worker Barry Baumener was awarded $2 million by a state court jury because of the malignant mesothelioma that caused his death. Oglebay Norton, Co. was found negligent in regard to the asbestos products it provided to the steel mill in Reading, Pa., where he worked.
Charles Sparks, a sheet metal worker at Longbeach Naval Shipyard, won a lawsuit against Owens-Illinois, Inc. in 1995 after being diagnosed with mesothelioma. The verdict was upheld by an Appeals Court and became a standard for future asbestos suits, putting the burden of proof on defendants in asbestos-product lawsuits.
Edward Walton, a metalsmith in the U.S. Navy, was diagnosed with asbestos-caused lung cancer in 2005. He was awarded $21 million in a lawsuit against the manufacturers of the valves, gaskets and insulation products that were provided to the Navy and caused his exposure to asbestos.
There are many companies that produced the asbestos products that have caused serious health issues for metal workers. Many of them are the same companies that caused problems in a myriad of occupations.
Johns Manville was responsible for a number of insulating products, including many used in construction of both buildings and ships. The Manville Personal Injury Settlement Trust is continually paying out settlements from a fund that includes more than $2 billion.
Garlock Sealing Technologies manufactured asbestos-containing products for decades, filing for bankruptcy in 2010 with more than 100,000 lawsuits still pending. Through much of the 20th century, Garlock was utilizing asbestos in the manufacturing of dozens of products.
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Last Modified February 18, 2019
3 Cited Article Sources
- Van den Borre, L. & Deboosere, P. (2015, June 24). Enduring health effects of asbestos use in Belgian industries: a record-linked cohort study of cause-specific mortality (2001–2009). Retrieved from: https://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/5/6/e007384
- Brickman, L. (2007). Disparities Between Asbestosis and Silicosis Claims Generated by Litigation Screenings and Clinical Studies. Cardozo Law Review, 29(2), 513.
- NIOSH (1980). Test for screening asbestos. Cincinnati, OH: U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, Public Health Service, Center for Disease Control, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, DHEW (NIOSH) Publication No. 80-110.