Everyday across the United States millions of workers are exposed to asbestos fibers on job sites, from shipyards to construction. Occupational exposure to asbestos remains a leading cause of asbestos-related diseases, including malignant mesothelioma.
There are no safe levels of asbestos exposure, but workers are exposed to it everyday. Employers are required by law to ensure employee safety by providing the proper protection from asbestos, but that is frequently not done. Healthcare experts have found even a short duration of exposure to asbestos can lead to mesothelioma
In a 2017 report, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found 11 industries and 17 occupations are connected to an elevated risk of developing mesothelioma. The CDC said most cases of mesothelioma are a result of asbestos exposure 20 to 40 years ago, but new cases may result from the maintenance, demolition and remediation of structures containing asbestos.
High Risk Industries
Asbestos is legal to use in the United States and continues to be imported from countries around the globe. According to the CDC, about 340 metric tons, which roughly translates to 740,000 pounds, was imported to the United States in 2016. All of it was used by the chloralkali industry to manufacture semi-permenant diaphragms that produce chlorine and sodium hydroxide.
The CDC said the most common asbestos occupational exposure and related deaths occurs in the following 11 industries:
- Ship and boat building
- Petroleum refining
- Industrial and chemicals manufacturing
- Labor union associated industries (Includes auto workers, longshoremen and mineworkers)
- Miscellaneous nonmetallic mineral product manufacturing (Includes manufacturing of dry mix concrete, stucco and synthetic gem manufacturing)
- Electric and gas
- Water transportation
- Electric-power generation transmission and distribution
- U.S. Navy
- Architectural, engineering and related services
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High Risk Occupations
Within each of the high-risk industries there are occupations that run an equally high risk of asbestos exposure. Many of the occupations are tied to products imported to the United States containing the most amount of asbestos: roof and non-roof coating, gaskets, aftermarket friction products, brake linings and pads, millboards, yarn, thread and gaskets.
The CDC said the following 17 occupations are closely related to asbestos exposure and connected deaths:
- Insulation workers – Employed in several industries, insulation workers are employed in construction, shipbuilding and vehicle manufacturing, among others. They cut and trim insulation to protect from weather fluctuations.
- Chemical technicians – To assist chemists and chemical engineers, chemical technicians help in the research, development and production of chemical and chemical-based products.
- Pipelayers, plumbers, pipefitters and steamfitters – Pipelayers, plumbers, pipefitters and steamfitters are most often employed in the construction industry. They install and repair pipes that carry liquids or gases to and from homes, businesses and factories.
- Chemical engineers – Chemical engineers primarily work in facilities that produce basic chemical and chemical-based products including plastics, pharmaceuticals and soaps and cleaners.
- Sheet metal workers – In using sheet metal for roofs, gutters, automobiles and ventilation systems, sheet metal workers are exposed to asbestos because they are in close proximity to the toxic mineral.
- Sailors and marine oilers – In the U.S. Navy, sailors and marine oilers work above-water shipboard operations including maintenance and repairs.
- Structural iron and steel workers – Iron and steel workers help build bridges, skyscrapers, tunnels, dams, and other large structures.
- Millwrights – As industrial maintenance mechanics, millwrights install and maintain industrial machinery and equipment.
- Stationary engineers and boiler operators – In operating and maintaining steam engines, generators, turbines and motors, stationary engineers and boiler operators ensure the equipment is installed properly and maintained.
- Electricians – Electricians install and maintain wiring and lighting systems, inspect electrical components and identify electrical problems. Electrical systems often contain asbestos insulation.
- Welding, soldering, and brazing workers – Welders, solderers and brazing workers use intense heat to join metals. They work in industries that include shipbuilding, automobile manufacturing and repair and construction.
- Construction managers – Also called general contractors and project managers, construction managers oversee and manage construction projects from homes to skyscrapers.
- Engineers, all other – Includes aerospace, manufacturing, nuclear and biochemical engineers. They are exposed to occupational asbestos from machinery.
- Mechanical engineers – Mechanical engineers design, examine, test and oversee production of a wide variety of products from industrial machinery to consumer appliances.
- First-line supervisors or managers of mechanics, installers and repairers – As crew leaders, electrical foremen and facilities superintendents, first-line supervisors and managers oversee the work of mechanics, installers and repair workers in a variety of settings.
- Machinists – Machinists work in shipyards, construction sites and manufacturing plants on equipment that includes milling machines and lathes.
- First-line supervisors or managers of production and operating orders – As direct supervisors of production and operating workers, first-line supervisors and managers coordinate and oversee machine setters, assemblers, fabricators and plant operators.
Workers were also exposed to products in these industries that added to their risk of asbestos exposure. Some of these products include fireproofing, gaskets, asbestos plastics, electrical insulation and adhesives.
OSHA, EPA & MSHA Protections
As with any product or good produced and distributed within the United States, there are regulations in place to ensure safety at every stage of production and distribution. Unfortunately, in the case of asbestos, some of these regulations were put in place too late.
Government organizations such as OSHA, the EPA and MSHA are responsible for the ongoing regulation and protection from asbestos exposure. Each branch specifically deals with a different segment of the population that may be at risk.
OSHA is responsible for establishing best practices at non specific job sites that may have asbestos on site, like construction sites. The EPA is mainly responsible for ensuring the public’s safety and assessing the environmental impact of products within our economy, though they also make sure companies large enough to damage the environment are regulated properly. The MSHA is specifically responsible for establishing mine safety standards and exposure limit allowances.
Second Hand Exposure
Men are most often exposed to asbestos because they worked in industries that used the mineral for its heat and chemical resistant properties. Family members of those workers are vulnerable to asbestos exposure as well.
Second-hand exposure occurs when someone who works near or with asbestos brings the toxic mineral into a home. Immediate family members, particularly women, are highly susceptible to second-hand exposure and the resulting disease. Indirect exposure happens in a variety of ways:
- Laundry – Anyone who handles clothes worn by asbestos workers is at risk for inhaling or ingesting asbestos fibers.
- Furniture – Asbestos fibers brought into the house can become affixed to furniture and later released into the air.
- Direct contact – Workers who come home with fibers on their clothes and body transfer asbestos to their loved ones through hugs and other contact.
Identifying Asbestos Exposure
The process of identifying asbestos exposure can be challenging because there are so many industries and occupations involved, particularly since there are decades between exposure and disease symptoms. With help from our Patient Advocates, mesothelioma victims are able to connect exposure to employment.
Identifying the industry and location of your asbestos exposure is a necessary step to receive financial compensation from asbestos bankruptcy trust funds. The following information is vital to identifying asbestos exposure:
- Address of possible exposure site
- Inspection reports from suspected exposure site.
- Witness reports from other employees at the site
- History of asbestos use at the possible site
- Number of claims filed against suspected site
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Richard Stewart is a writer, content coordinator and outreach director with over 12 years of experience covering asbestos exposure, mesothelioma, and treatment options. He is passionate about spreading awareness for asbestos and mesothelioma and helping victims find the information and resources they need online.Learn More
- Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Asbestos. Retrieved from https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/asbestos/
- Haelle, Tara. Forbes.com. “Asbestos Still Causes Cancer. Why Is It Still Used?” Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/tarahaelle/2017/03/24/asbestos-linked-cancer-remains-a-killer-just-as-asbestos-remains-commonly-used/#369f66d83314
- U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Malignant Mesothelioma Mortality – United States, 1999–2015. Retrieved from