Despite global efforts to limit or ban the use of asbestos, the World Health Organization estimates that 125 million people around the world are exposed to asbestos each year. Asbestos is the cause of approximately 50% of deaths from occupational cancer, such as mesothelioma.
In the United States, OSHA estimates that over half a million workers work with asbestos. Several industries and occupations have been identified by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) as high-risk for asbestos exposure. If you work in these sectors – or have worked in them previously – it is essential to understand the risks that doing your job may pose to your health.
What Is Occupational Asbestos Exposure?
In previous decades, asbestos was extensively used in many different industries, including construction, manufacturing and mining. It was chosen for these purposes because of its heat-resistant properties.
As research around the topic of asbestos evolved, it became increasingly clear that it was linked to several diseases, including mesothelioma. This led to a complete change in the way the world thought about asbestos. As of 2023, asbestos is now completely banned in over 50 countries, and whilst there is no outright ban in the United States, several legal provisions were introduced to limit worker exposure. 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.
Sadly, recent legislation can’t undo the previous damage – nor can it completely protect current exposure to asbestos. Workers exposed to asbestos are at significant risk from developing mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases. Between 1940 and 1979, the CDC estimates that 27 million workers were exposed to asbestos fibers. But the risk still persists today – thousands of individuals continue to die from mesothelioma each year.
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High Risk Asbestos Workers
Any exposure to asbestos is dangerous – but some occupations can include such extensive exposure that they are deemed as higher risk.
Due to the prevalence of asbestos in construction work, any occupation linked to this industry – such as builders, roofers, painters, excavators, tilers, or building inspectors – is a huge risk for asbestos exposure.
Older buildings contain great quantities of asbestos. When demolition crews are commissioned to tear down these buildings, they are at risk of asbestos dust particles which may be thrown into the air.
When firefighters are tasked with tackling a building fire, they may become exposed to asbestos in the air.
Whilst mining for asbestos ended in the United States in the early 2000s, miners who worked in this industry prior to that point are at the greatest risk of developing asbestos-related diseases. Even today’s miners are at risk, as minerals such as talc and vermiculite may have been contaminated with asbestos.
At one point or another, all branches of the military have likely come into contact with asbestos – but Navy veterans are at heightened risk due to the manufacturing techniques used in shipyards throughout the twentieth century.
Historically, asbestos was used in almost all types of insulation due to its ability to retain heat. This put insulation installers at high-risk of asbestos exposure, and even today’s insulators face a threat if they are inspecting or working on older buildings which used asbestos.
Medium Risk Asbestos Workers
Asbestos workers at moderate risk from asbestos exposure may have direct or indirect contact with the carcinogen. The level of exposure will vary depending upon the type of role the activities involved within it.
When working on vehicles, the biggest risk is posed to brake mechanics – a large amount of asbestos is released when working on brake pads.
Blacksmiths work with hot metal, and asbestos was traditionally used in protective materials like gloves, due to its durability and resistance to heat.
When working on projects, carpenters may be exposed to asbestos in insulation, or may handle products containing asbestos.
When rewiring an older building, or working in attics which may contain insulation which contains asbestos, electricians may be at risk of asbestos exposure.
Due to the nature of their work, HVAC technicians may operate around building materials which contain asbestos.
Repairing pipes used in buildings – particularly older builds – may involve working in areas with significant asbestos particles.
Railroad workers faced a number of ways they could be exposed to asbestos – from the use in train brakes and clutches, to boiler parts and furnace cement.
Low Risk Asbestos Workers
The following occupations have minimal asbestos exposure. Whilst it is unlikely that these workers would be at significant risk, the jobs may have certain projects or environments which make the individuals performing them more likely to develop asbestos-related diseases.
When maintaining parts of an aircraft, mechanics may be exposed to insulation or electrical equipment containing asbestos.
Professional bakers who use older ovens may be exposed to equipment which was built using asbestos.
Fireplace technicians and chimney sweeps may be at risk from developing asbestos-related illnesses. Older chimneys and fireplaces were constructed using asbestos due to its heat resistance.
Covering large spaces, warehouses often used asbestos in insulation to retain heat. Although modern warehouses no longer use asbestos, workers in the past were at risk of developing asbestos-related diseases such as mesothelioma.
Additional Risks Associated With Asbestos In The Workplace
It is not only the workers themselves who faced a risk from asbestos in the workplace. Often, these individuals would return home to their families after a long day at work – and their clothes would be laced with toxic asbestos fibers.
This brought a new element of risk to other members of the household, who may have handled laundry items contaminated with asbestos. It is also possible that asbestos became affixed to furniture and other household items.
Many of the occupations were historically carried out by men, but this indirect exposure to asbestos unknowingly transferred risk of asbestos-related diseases to wives, children and other members of the family. For example, if you grew up in a home where your father was working on a construction site or as a firefighter, your chances of coming into contact with asbestos was greatly increased.
How To Identify Asbestos Exposure In The Workplace
Identifying asbestos exposure can be challenging. There are so many industries and occupations involved, and there may have been decades between exposure and disease symptoms.
However, 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 in the workplace:
- Address of possible exposure site
- Inspection reports from the 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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- Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
Retrieved from https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/csem/asbestos/who_is_at_risk.html
- Bainbridge Elearning. Asbestos bans around the world.
Retrieved from https://bainbridgeelearning.co.uk/asbestos-bans-around-world/
- Communication Workers of America (CWA). Asbestos and the workplace.
Retrieved from https://cwa-union.org/national-issues/health-and-safety/health-and-safety-fact-sheets/asbestos-and-workplace
- World Health Organization. Asbestos: elimination of asbestos-related diseases.
Retrieved from https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/asbestos-elimination-of-asbestos-related-diseases/
- 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