Asbestos is a known health hazard and is highly regulated by both the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Damaged or worn-down asbestos-containing products may release fibers that can be inhaled or swallowed. Once asbestos particles get into the lungs or digestive system tissues, they can remain there forever.
Over time, asbestos fibers can cause mesothelioma, a rare and aggressive form of cancer, as well as other deadly diseases.
“Although the use of asbestos and asbestos products has dramatically decreased in recent years, they are still found in many residential and commercial settings and continue to pose a health risk to workers and others.”
– The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)
Through the early 1980s, U.S. workers in many occupations were exposed to high levels of asbestos. Even though asbestos is not entirely banned in the United States today, regulations have decreased exposure in many occupations. However, many workers remain at risk.
Quick Facts: Asbestos on the Job
- According to OSHA, over 500,000 employees work with asbestos products
- Millions of people were exposed in the past from working with or near asbestos products
- Family members may get exposed to asbestos fibers that make it home on clothes or hair
- Exposure to asbestos kills an estimated 40,000 Americans each year
Below, you can learn more about 10 occupations still at risk of asbestos exposure in 2022.
Fighting fires puts people at risk of exposure to hundreds of chemicals and carcinogens, including asbestos. Asbestos-containing products still lurk in many older buildings constructed when companies hid the dangers of asbestos.
Because of this, firefighters are twice as likely to develop mesothelioma than the general public.
Firefighters who also served in the military are at an even greater risk, including those who worked as fire control men and aviation fire control technicians.
Sadly, according to the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), 75% of those added to the Fallen Firefighter Memorial died from occupational cancer from 2015-2020. This is, in part, because when they respond to a fire, firefighters are unlikely to have advanced notice of any hazardous materials that could be present.
“Since asbestos is a substance that’s not an issue unless disturbed in some way, there’s no way for them to know before they arrive if it’s in a building’s tile glue, ceiling tiles, etc.”
– Spokesperson for Austin, Texas Fire Department
With no advanced warning, firefighters can’t take the required measures to protect themselves. This is still true today since older structures are likely to contain asbestos that could be released into the air when damaged.
2. Construction Workers
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there were 11.4 million Americans employed in construction in 2019, a 25% increase since 2011.
Unfortunately, asbestos has been used in building materials for decades. It was thought to be the perfect construction material and was frequently added to other products to make them lighter, stronger and fireproof.
As a result, many commercial, industrial and residential buildings constructed between 1920 and through 1980s were made with asbestos-containing materials and still have them to this day. This puts construction workers who work on these buildings at risk of exposure.
Construction materials that may contain asbestos include:
- Asbestos cement sheets and pipes
- Ceiling tiles
- Floor tiles
- Friction materials
- Paints and sealants
- Patching and taping compounds
- Pipe insulation
- Roofing materials
- Transite wallboard and pipe
- Vinyl floor tiles
- Wall and ceiling plaster
There are many possible ways construction workers might be exposed to asbestos on the job, which makes proper ventilation and protective equipment especially important.
Repair, renovation and maintenance can disturb asbestos-containing products. Cutting holes or drilling into roofing, pipes and siding can cause asbestos fibers to be released into the air and inhaled by workers.
Worse, it’s not always possible to know when asbestos is present. Safety protocol is to assume virtually any building material installed through the early 1980s contains asbestos, but the protocol is not always followed. Sadly, workers are not always warned about the presence of asbestos or the health risks of exposure.
3. Auto Mechanics
Brake mechanics and auto mechanics do hands-on work with worn automobile parts, which puts them at risk of asbestos exposure. Those who work with clutch facings, brake shoes, linings and other friction materials that were often made with asbestos before the early 1980s may be at risk for this reason as well.
In 2019, there were about 750,000 auto technicians and mechanics in the country. Many have endured years of asbestos exposure at repair shops, garages, dealerships and service stations. This includes working in confined spaces where asbestos fibers can linger.
What’s worse, some automobile parts manufacturers continue to defend asbestos as being safe if it is properly contained. This simply is not the case, as no amount of asbestos exposure is considered safe.
Insulators install, maintain and replace thermal insulation materials in residential, commercial and industrial work sites. Insulators working in buildings or around machinery manufactured before the 1980s may be at risk of asbestos exposure.
Insulators who may be at risk include those who work at:
- Apartment complexes
- Chemical plants
- Paper mills
- Power stations
Insulators are at increased risk because it is common to cut insulation with hand saws and knives, which can disturb asbestos. They may also be at risk if they use defective respiratory equipment when working to seal and/or remove asbestos-based insulation.
Plumbers who work in homes or businesses under renovation are at an especially high risk for asbestos exposure. However, even plumbers performing routine work could be at risk if they are working with old asbestos-containing components and materials like cement pipe.
Some plumbing materials that are known to contain asbestos include:
- Hot water pipes
- Joint compounds, adhesives and sealants
- Lagging in wall cavities
- Outdoor toilets and laundries
- Stormwater and sewage piping
- Swimming pools
- Tank insulation
- Toilet seats and cisterns
- Water tanks
Additionally, plumbers regularly work around other tradespeople like insulators, drywallers and carpenters who routinely use asbestos-containing materials, which puts them at risk of exposure.
Boilermakers erect and repair boilers in office buildings, industrial plants, apartment complexes, schools, warehouses and other structures that still use steam as a heat or power source. Because of its fire-resistant qualities, asbestos was used as the main heat-insulation medium of industrial and residential boilers.
Though the government began to regulate the use of asbestos in the 1970s, there are thousands of boilers around the country — many built half a century ago — that remain contaminated with asbestos.
The extensive use of asbestos, especially in older boiler systems, makes the occupation of boilermaker a particularly high-risk job for asbestos exposure even in the 21st century.
Asbestos was used in electrical equipment because of its fire protectant and heat-resistant qualities. Therefore, like many other trade workers, electricians may be at an increased risk of coming into contact with asbestos at some point during their careers.
In many cases, electricians encounter asbestos-containing products like insulation or piping when crawling through attics or basements on the job.
Some of the asbestos-containing products encountered by electricians include:
- Ceiling tiles
- Cement siding
- Circuit breakers
- Decorative plaster
- Electrical ducts
- Electric wiring insulation
- Joint compound
- Spackling material
- Textured paints
Working around older electrical equipment could damage asbestos and cause accidental exposure to fibers. Electrical contractors may also be at risk while performing low-hazard work on asbestos that gets disturbed.
8. Military Service Members & Veterans
From the 1930s to the late 1970s, asbestos was used extensively in military vehicles, equipment and buildings in every branch of the military. Even today, asbestos can be found in older military installations and on ships across the country, putting current military service members at risk.
Not only were many military men and women exposed to asbestos during their service, veterans transitioning into civilian life would often go on to hold similar occupations in the private sector, which also further exposed them to the toxic material.
While it may come as a surprise to many, teachers are at risk of asbestos exposure. According to the EPA, about 20 percent of public buildings in the United States contain asbestos. This amounts to over 730,000 structures, which includes many public schools.
By EPA estimates, there are about 138,000 schools in the United States that contain asbestos-containing materials. Within schools, asbestos is often found in plaster, insulation on boilers and pipes, and floor and ceiling tiles.
With the amount of time teachers spend within school walls, they could unknowingly be at risk of asbestos exposure.
10. Family Members of Workers
Some people may not realize that they don’t have to work with asbestos-containing products to be exposed to the toxic material. They could be at risk of take-home asbestos exposure simply by living with someone who works with or near contaminated products.
Asbestos fibers can travel home on the worker’s hair or clothing, which can put their family members or roommates at an increased risk of exposure as well. This is known as secondhand or take-home exposure.
To limit the risk of take-home exposure, federal law requires some workers to follow safety precautions, like:
- Wearing protective gear
- Leaving contaminated gear, clothes and tools at work
- Showering before leaving work if possible
- Washing dirty uniforms separate from everyday clothes
Get Experienced Mesothelioma Legal Help Today
While these occupations are known to put workers at risk of asbestos exposure, they are not the only ones. Workers from various industries and trades were exposed to asbestos — and the health risks were hidden from them until it was too late.
Because mesothelioma can take up to 50 years to develop after asbestos exposure, workers or their family members exposed decades ago may still be at risk today. This could catch retirees and military veterans entirely off guard, as they may think their occupational risks are long behind them.