As an employer, it can be easy to overlook the threat of asbestos in your workplace. After all, with exacting regulations about its use, it's often thought as a risk that is no longer relevant. Moreover, because it's adverse effects only manifest in the long term, it's easy to ignore exposure while it is occurring. Neglecting to properly control for asbestos in the workplace, however, is a serious matter. Not only is it an employer's duty to ensure the safety of their workers, but the associated legal liability can be extremely costly.
Asbestos is a naturally occurring substance composed of small silicate compounds. It is heat-, fire-, and chemical-resistant and doesn't conduct electricity, which made it the preferred choice for a number of commercial uses.
However, once the compounds are released into the air, they can be breathed in and cause inflammation and scarring in the lungs. Asbestos exposure is the biggest cause of mesothelioma, an invasive cancer that attacks the lining of the body's cavities, particularly the lungs (learn more about Mesothelioma Treatment and Prevention).
While asbestos is often far from employee's minds, it can still be found in a number of workplaces and several professions in particular have a greater likelihood of exposure (see The Top 5 Places You Will Encounter Asbestos in the Workplace).
Buildings erected or renovated prior to 1980 are far more likely to have asbestos-containing materials (ACM) than newer constructions. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) does have strict regulations in place to reduce the risk of exposure for construction workers in structures that are known to contain asbestos, but asbestos inspections are only required in schools.
Asbestos in these older buildings could be located in roofing, floor tiles, fireproofing material, and pipe or boiler insulation. Once the presence of asbestos is confirmed, the area must be sealed off and identified with appropriate signage. The removal must be performed by trained professionals in order to minimize the amount of asbestos fibers that become airborne.
Like construction workers, firefighters might have to do their job in buildings that predate strict asbestos regulations. A fire in a building that contains asbestos products releases the toxic carcinogen into the air, where it is easily breathed in (see this Q&A on Firefighters and Asbestos to find out more).
Large manufacturing plants may also contain ACMs. Asbestos' fire resistance made it a popular material for use in power plants and paper mills. It was also the primary form of insulation used on ships for four decades after World War II, and pipelines were commonly insulated with it prior to 1980.
Even as recently as 2009, asbestos was found in children's toys and crayons. Anyone working in a factory that produces these items may be at risk of developing severe health complications as a result.
Permissible Exposure Levels
OSHA sets the maximum permissible limit for occupational exposure to asbestos at one-tenth of a fiber per cubic meter of air. And, while it is allowable, this level of exposure is not necessarily safe. Even at those levels, there is a risk of developing long-term complications.
Employer Liability for Asbestos Exposure
Most people are well aware that exposure to asbestos can have devastating consequences. But what many employers don't realize is just how financially disastrous it can be to neglect the problem in their workplaces.
Asbestos manufacturers knew of the dangers of their product for decades but hid the information from the public in order to continue making profits. As a result, a number of companies faced hefty compensation claims from victims of exposure and many were required to set up trust funds to pay for future asbestos-related lawsuits.
Asbestos exposure, however, is not a thing of the past and you can still be held legally responsible if your employees suffer adverse effects from it. The compensation amounts are rather heavy, since they are meant to cover medical treatments, medication, lost income, and personal suffering (including physical pain, loss of the enjoyment of life, and emotional trauma). Given how much it is meant to cover, eight-figure compensation amounts are not unheard of (for a few notable examples, see this page on Mesothelioma Verdicts).
Employers who believe they can delay the issue until it is out of their hands should know that their negligence can come back to haunt them later on. No matter how long ago the victim of asbestos was under your employment, you might still be held responsible. The limitations for filing a claim are related to the time of diagnosis or death, not exposure. The precise limitations vary across states (see a complete list here), but victims can have up to six years from their diagnosis to file claims, or up to three year from their death for claims filed by their relatives. Some states, moreover, don't even require a diagnosis before proceeding with a compensation claim—exposure provides sufficient grounds for litigation.
The effects of asbestos exposure can take years to appear, which may make asbestos control and safety a low priority for some employers. While the effects aren't immediate, the consequences are extremely serious, both for the victims and for their employers. Any potential for exposure in your workplaces or job sites should be addressed immediately, before it is too late.