Q&A - Top At-Risk Occupations for Asbestos Exposure
Asbestos in the workplace FAQ.
The threat of asbestos exposure in the workplace remains a serious concern today, despite a dramatic drop in the use of the toxic material in recent decades. The danger still exists in many occupations. No level of asbestos exposure is considered safe, and precautions still should be taken to protect workers on the job and their families waiting at home.
We Keep Hearing That Asbestos Is Hardly Used Anymore, so Why Are We Worried About It?
You should be cautious because asbestos products are all around today. Any structure built before 1980 still is loaded with asbestos products. They are in homes, schools and businesses. You can find asbestos in ships and automobiles. And any time asbestos products are disturbed, the fibers become airborne and dangerous.
In What Industries Is It Still Prevalent?
Quite a few. The roofing industry still is using it in new construction. So is the shipbuilding and ship maintenance industry to a lesser degree. Asbestos is a useful product when it comes to reducing heat and cutting the risk of fire and corrosion, so you can see why it was once so coveted. But the problem is that it also is dangerously toxic when those asbestos fibers are disturbed.
Wasn't Asbestos Banned?
It is banned in more than 50 countries, but not in the United States. It is strictly regulated, but still legal. Products can contain asbestos today as long as it does not exceed one percent of the product. But, like we said earlier, no amount of asbestos exposure is considered safe.
What Occupations Are at Particular Risk?
Firefighters doing their jobs are at high risk. A majority of their time fighting fires is spent around older structures, where asbestos is plentiful. The smoke from the fires sends the asbestos fibers everywhere, putting firefighters directly in harm's way. They are essentially bathing in it. They are dealing with the construction industry's unlimited use of asbestos throughout much of the 20th century.
How Do Firefighters Protect Themselves?
They are using personal protective equipment and self-contained breathing apparatuses. But they have to be vigilant and use them properly, making sure they aren't removed too quickly. Even when the fire is out, asbestos fibers remain in the air, and they can travel.
What Other Occupations Are at High Risk?
Those in the roofing and shipbuilding industry must be careful. So, are those in the home re-modelling and renovation industry. Renovating an older home can create a similar risk, particularly for the do-it-yourselfer who may be uninformed. Auto mechanics repairing and replacing brakes and clutches still have to guard against asbestos exposure. Brake pads are the worst when it comes to hidden asbestos containing material in cars.
So, What Should These Workers Do?
In all of those professions, workers need to make sure they are not inhaling or ingesting dust or dirt. It means wearing some kind of protective breathing device and more than a paper mask. They also need to make sure they are not bringing fibers on their clothes and shoes home after work, which endangers their families.
What Other Occupations Need to Be Aware of Asbestos?
Anyone doing demolition work, such as those in the construction industry, must be cautious. Asbestos fibers are in cement, so anyone cutting through old cement needs to be aware of the cement dust. Power plant workers cutting through old heat-resistant products such as pipe insulation or fireproofing spray need to be protected.
How Common Are Asbestos-Related Diseases Today?
Too common. An estimated 3,000 Americans are diagnosed with mesothelioma cancer each year, a number that is not expected to decline for another decade. An estimated 10,000 people in the country die each year from some kind of asbestos-related disease.
Written by Tim Povtak
Tim Povtak is an award-winning writer and journalist with more than three decades of experience. He spent most of his career at the Orlando Sentinel before moving on to AOL. His work also has appeared in The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times and The Boston Globe. He has served as a guest analyst on both television and radio.