Written By: Matt Mauney, Last modified: February 19, 2021
Quick Facts
  • National Employment, 2010:
    127,100
  • Similar Occupations:
    Welding, Soldering and Brazing Machine Setters, Operators and Tenders; Metal and Plastic Cutting, Punching and Pressing Setters, Operators and Tenders; Sawing Machine Setters, Operators and Tenders; Wood Woodworking Machine Setters, Operators and Tenders, Except Sawing; Cementing and Gluing Machine Operators and Tenders; Packaging and Filling Machine Operators and Tenders; Textile Cutting Machine Setters, Operators, and Tenders
  • Previously Exposed:
    Yes
  • Still Being Exposed:
    Yes
  • Asbestos-Related Disease Risk:
    Moderate
  • States with Highest Employment:
    Wisconsin, California, New York, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Texas

A paper mill is an industrial plant where paper is manufactured from vegetable fibers like wood pulp. Mills can be fully integrated mills or nonintegrated. A fully integrated mill is both a paper mill and a pulp mill on the same site. It receives forest logs and wood chips, processes them into wood pulp and then manufactures them into paper. A nonintegrated mill consists only of a pulp mill, which purchases wood pulp that has already been processed. That pulp is then used to produce paper sheets.

The process of manufacturing paper from start to finish requires paper mill workers to deliver and prepare the raw material, pulp the prepared materials, bleach and refine the materials, form paper sheets, then coat, dry and calendar the paper sheets and finally, cut and package the finished product.

Because we are still dependent on paper for writing and packaging, U.S. paper mills supply thousands of people with jobs. In effect, this means thousands of people were put at risk for asbestos exposure. Asbestos was used as insulation, in building materials and in paper mill machinery in mills that were built between the 1930s and 1970s.

Former paper mill workers are among the thousands of Americans who seek compensation for asbestos-related illnesses each year. According to a KCIC industry report, more than 4,000 occupational asbestos exposure lawsuits were filed in 2017 alone.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics identifies several paper mill worker job specialties, including:

  • Cutting and Slicing Machine Setters, Operators and Tenders: They set up, operate or tend machines that cut or slice paper.
  • Truck and Tractor Operators: They operate trucks or tractors to move raw materials (forest logs) to the mill.
  • Paper Goods Machine Setters, Operators and Tenders: They set up, operate or tend paper goods machines that convert, corrugate, band, saw, wrap, box, stitch, form or seal paper or paperboard sheets.
  • Printing Machine Operators: They set up or operate various printing machines (offset, letterset, intaglio or gravure presses) or screen printers to produce print materials.
  • First-line Supervisors/Managers of Production and Operating Workers: They directly supervise and coordinate production and operations employees (precision workers, inspectors, machine setters and operators, assemblers, fabricators and plant and system operators).
  • Industrial Production Managers: They plan, coordinate or direct the manufacturing process.

Paper Mill Products and Locations

Paper mill workers were exposed to a number of asbestos products such as:

  • Insulation: Asbestos is commonly used for insulation purposes in or around many products including walls, doors, piping and boilers.
  • Paper Mill Equipment and Materials: Paper mills consist of some asbestos-containing equipment and materials such as drying machines, talc and sandpaper backing.
  • Building Materials: A variety of construction material was used to build paper mills, including industrial adhesives, door panels, ceiling and floor tiles, paint, packing material, cement, counter tops, roofing shingles and siding.

Occupational Exposure for Paper Mill Workers

The majority of asbestos exposure in paper mills occurs through equipment maintenance. Because pulping, recovery and boiler operations involve high heat, asbestos was used to insulate pipes and vessels, which maintenance workers often came in contact with. Maintenance personnel were also at a high risk of exposure because asbestos was present in the mill machinery that they were required to inspect and repair.

Maintenance workers were not the only paper mill employees at risk of asbestos exposure. The various materials used to build paper mills such as industrial adhesives, ceiling and floor tiles and cement contained asbestos, and if any worker encountered deteriorating materials, they may have been exposed to and inhaled asbestos fibers. Once these fibers are inhaled, many are expelled, but some can become lodged in organ tissues and remain there throughout life. The accumulation of fibers can cause inflammation and scarring that may lead to the development of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related illnesses.

Asbestos was also in wall insulation, roofing shingles and siding, because paper is highly flammable and the need for protection against any potential for fire was necessary. Just working inside the plant posed a threat to asbestos exposure because a large amount of asbestos dust that collected in the air could be inhaled by any worker in the plant.

Paper mill workers may have been exposed to asbestos during the many different stages in paper manufacturing. Talc is used exclusively as a paper additive in the bleaching and refining process of paper manufacturing, and it can be contaminated with asbestos.

Kimberly-Clark Corp. and other manufacturers supplied paper mills with paper that was made for use as sandpaper backing that contained asbestos, and was often used in production.

Mill workers also were exposed during the drying process where dryer felts, or fabrics, are used to enhance production of high-speed paper machines. After the pulp passes through the initial chemical and mechanical processing stages, paper mill workers place it on large drying machines that remove the leftover moisture. Workers then shape the paper into sheets and lay it out on a screen to dry under a heat source. Once it stiffens, the resulting product is commercially sold paper.

During daily routine maintenance, asbestos dust was released from dryer felts in dryer machines. When the dryer felts had to be replaced workers were exposed to asbestos particles when they hand cut and fitted the new felt into the machines.

Power boiler workers handle bark, waste wood and sludge from the effluent treatment system. In older mills, workers would remove ash from the bottom of the boilers and then reseal the boilers by applying a mixture of asbestos and cement around the boiler grate. In modern paper mills, this process is automatic.

Scientific Studies Involving Paper Mill Workers

A Swedish study showed an increased risk of pleural mesothelioma among paper mill workers. When the exposure was further analyzed, 71 percent of the cases had been exposed to asbestos, the majority having worked as maintenance workers in paper mills. A study conducted in British Columbia, Canada found that asbestos exposure among paper and pulp mill workers has been linked to an increased risk of developing cancer.

An Italian study tested dust samples and machinery in a small Italian factory that manufactured paper mill dryers and found asbestos fibers present in the equipment. Three cases of pleural mesothelioma occurred among workers of the small factory that manufactured drying machines for the paper mill industry using crocidolite, amosite and chrysotile asbestos cement as insulating panels.

A pleural (lung) cancer study found that among paper industry employees, the majority of fatal asbestos exposure occurred in maintenance workers. Maintenance workers at paper mills were responsible for the upkeep of the intricate paper-making machinery. To ensure that the product was produced correctly, maintenance workers opened up the machinery to check that the passageways were clear and the heating elements were working properly, which could lead to the inhalation of loose fibers from the insulation and heating element holders, many of which are made of crocidolite asbestos.

Mesothelioma Lawsuits Involving Paper Mill Workers

Henry Barabin, a retired Crown Zellerbach Paper Mill employee suffering from mesothelioma, won a $10.2 million judgment against Scapa Dryer Fabrics, Inc., and AstenJohnson Inc. Barabin worked for Crown Zellerbach Paper Mill in Washington State from 1968 until his retirement in 2001. In November 2006, Barabin was diagnosed with pleural malignant epithelial mesothelioma.

During his employment, Barabin worked in various jobs that exposed him to the dryer felts that AstenJohnson and Scapa provided. He claimed the dryer felts used on paper machines supplied by these companies exposed him to high levels of asbestos, which caused him to develop mesothelioma. He also took pieces of dryer felt home to use in his garden.

In another case, three former paper mill employees won more than $800,000 in a judgment against Scapa Dryer Fabrics, Inc., and AstenJohnson Inc. The workers held jobs as millwrights and machine operators, and they said the companies knowingly exposed them to asbestos. Walter Patton was awarded $514,220 while the other two employees were awarded $259,045 and $76,102.

Manufacturers Who Made Products Used by Paper Mill Workers

Kimberly-Clark, Champion International and International Paper Company have manufactured asbestos products used in paper mills.

Scapa Dryer Fabrics, Inc., AstenJohnson Inc., Georgia-Pacific, Kaiser Aluminum and W.R. Grace Co. have been involved in asbestos litigation for exposing paper mill workers.


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