Written by Michelle Whitmer | Edited By Walter Pacheco

How Are Welders Exposed to Asbestos? 

Welders can encounter asbestos fibers during their daily tasks when working with legacy asbestos in older tools and products. Asbestos exposure can also occur when workers come into contact with asbestos-containing materials, such as insulation, while working in construction sites or industrial settings.

Welders face a high risk of developing asbestos-related illnesses such as lung cancer, mesothelioma or asbestosis from long-term occupational asbestos exposure. State and local authorities have regulations to protect workers from the hazards of asbestos. However, the effectiveness of these rules depends on several factors.

Before the 1980s, people with jobs in the metalworks industry regularly encountered asbestos, significantly increasing their chances of developing asbestos-related illnesses. Welders still face asbestos-related risks, and it is the responsibility of employers to implement and follow safety regulations.

How Is Asbestos Used in Welding?

Welding rods typically had an asbestos coating to protect them from extreme heat. The high heat of the welding process can break down and release these asbestos fibers into the air through smoke or sparks, resulting in inhalation. Asbestos-based garments shielded welders from direct contact with high-temperature surfaces and sparks, but they also regularly shed asbestos fibers, posing serious health risks.

Welders can also encounter asbestos exposure in construction, increasing their risk of asbestos-related illnesses. Construction sites often involve asbestos-containing materials, such as cement sheets, insulation and pipe coverings. Asbestos is a durable material with strong insulation properties and highly resistant to heat and fire. Clothing and equipment made with asbestos fibers can withstand the rigors of welding jobs.

Equipment Associated With Asbestos and Welding
  • Aprons
  • Boilers
  • Gloves
  • Helmets
  • Insulation
  • Jackets
  • Masks
  • Pipes
  • Shields
  • Welding blankets
  • Welding rods

Military welders, too, have faced asbestos exposure risks in the past. The military used asbestos in various applications, including shipbuilding and repair. As a result, navy welders and other military workers may have encountered asbestos-containing materials in naval vessels and military installations. While asbestos use in the military has significantly declined, the risk of exposure remains in older equipment and infrastructure.

Asbestos protected industrial workers from the intense heat generated during welding. Prolonged inhalation of asbestos fibers can cause severe respiratory conditions, including asbestosis and mesothelioma. In response to these health concerns, industries shifted toward alternative materials to reduce the risks associated with asbestos and welding. 

However, some older equipment and facilities may still harbor these materials. Welding blankets are often still called “asbestos blankets” even if they do not contain asbestos fibers.

Health Risks of Asbestos in Welding

Inhaling airborne asbestos fibers while welding poses a severe health hazard. When asbestos welding rods, pipes and safety gear become damaged from the high temperatures generated during welding, they can release microscopic asbestos fibers into the air. 

Asbestos fibers can become lodged in the tissues that line and protect vital organs. Once inside the tissue, it can lead to serious conditions such as asbestosis and malignant mesothelioma. These diseases often have a long latency period, meaning symptoms may only appear years or even decades after exposure. Mesothelioma onset occurs 20 to 60 years after the initial asbestos exposure.

Asbestos Exposure Risks Among Welders
  • According to an American Journal of Industrial Medicine study, welding is one of the highest-risk occupations for asbestos exposure.
  • Researchers found that compared to the general population, welders are 43% more likely to get lung cancer.
  • An estimated 27 million U.S. workers experienced asbestos exposure between 1940 and 1979.

Welders exposed to asbestos have an increased risk of developing various illnesses, such as lung cancer; cancers of the gastrointestinal tract, bladder, kidney and throat; scarring of the lung lining; asbestosis and mesothelioma. Mesothelioma is a rare and aggressive form of cancer that can affect the thin lining surrounding the lungs, abdomen or heart.

According to a CDC study, welders ranked 9th among all job types for occupation-related cases of mesothelioma, accounting for 43 out of 1,445 cases.

Although asbestos-related diseases have poor prognoses and survival rates, advancements in research and treatment offer hope for those affected. Symptoms of asbestos-related diseases include chest pain, shortness of breath, coughing, weight loss and fatigue.

Companies That Exposed Welders to Asbestos

Many industries rely on the work of welders, resulting in a high number of people exposed to asbestos. Welders play a crucial role in industries such as construction, manufacturing, shipbuilding and automotive assembly. Oil refineries, power plants and aviation companies also require the work of these skilled professionals. Some of the major asbestos manufacturers as well as employers in these industries have faced legal challenges and financial repercussions. Over the years, thousands of lawsuits have been filed against many of these entities, alleging negligence and failure to protect workers from asbestos exposure.

Companies Associated With Asbestos in Welding
  • ACandS: Installed insulation products containing asbestos
  • Afton Pumps: A manufacturer of industrial pumps and parts, named as a defendant in asbestos and mesothelioma lawsuits due to asbestos-containing products
  • AK Steel Corp: A steelmaking company that used asbestos as an insulation material, subjecting workers to harmful exposure
  • Armstrong World Industries: Manufactured a line of asbestos-containing wall and ceiling products that placed many workers at risk of asbestos exposure
  • ASARCO: A mining, smelting and refining company that produced asbestos cement pipes and operated an open-pit asbestos mine
  • Babcock & Wilcox: An energy technology company that used asbestos products to assemble boilers and other high-temperature equipment
  • Bondex International: Sold and manufactured various asbestos-containing building materials
  • Duro Dyne Corporation: A manufacturer of sheet metal accessories that contained asbestos fibers
  • Eastern Refractories Company: A distributor and installation contractor of insulation and refractory materials, with projects that involved employees cutting, spraying and applying asbestos coverings to products
  • John Deere Industrial Equipment Company: Manufactured tractors and other equipment that incorporated asbestos components, such as gaskets and brake linings
  • Lincoln Electric: Manufactured asbestos-containing welding rods
  • P. Green Industries: Manufactured various products that contained asbestos, including cements, adhesives, insulation coatings and gunning refractories
  • Sherwin Williams Company: Manufactured cement block fillers, Fibrasal roof coating and other products that contained asbestos
  • Vulcan Iron Works: Produced asbestos-containing machinery, such as steam locomotives, engines, boilers and mining machinery
  • Westinghouse Electric: Manufacturer of asbestos products that included welding rods, cables, lightbulbs, gaskets and turbines

The related lawsuits have had significant consequences for the companies involved. Many have declared bankruptcy in the face of mounting legal claims and established asbestos trust funds to compensate victims of asbestos-related illnesses. 

Trust funds provide financial relief to individuals who became ill from asbestos exposure, including welders who may have developed asbestos-related diseases because of their work. The lawsuits and trust fund claims are helping survivors and their families gain compensation for related medical expenses and lost wages. 

What to Do if You Were a Welder Exposed to Asbestos

The first step for a welder exposed to asbestos is to consult a qualified medical professional. Schedule an appointment with a physician, providing a detailed account of your work history and the extent of your asbestos exposure. Regular screenings are essential, as asbestos-related illnesses can slowly develop. Early detection and treatment can improve a patient’s prognosis.

If you or a loved one is diagnosed with mesothelioma or any asbestos-related disease, seek the expertise of a mesothelioma specialist. These medical professionals have specialized knowledge and experience in treating such conditions. They can also provide a second opinion to avoid a misdiagnosis. Additionally, knowledgeable Patient Advocates can simplify and guide you through the process of dealing with asbestos-related diseases. They can help you navigate treatment options, support resources and legal avenues.

Contact an experienced asbestos lawyer to discuss potential financial compensation from asbestos trust funds or pursue a lawsuit against responsible parties. These legal experts can help you secure the necessary compensation to cover medical expenses and provide financial support during this challenging time.

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