Asbestos exposure can lead to serious health conditions, including mesothelioma cancer, which usually develops in the protective lining of the lungs or abdomen over decades. Experts agree that there is no safe level of asbestos exposure, but asbestos-related diseases typically result from significant, repeated exposure.
Industrial workers, such as mechanics, chemical workers, and machine operators, face exposure hazards because their occupational duties may require welding, molding, grinding, or cutting asbestos-containing products. Asbestos is virtually harmless if left intact but the fibrous mineral becomes deadly when disturbed (to learn more, see Asbestos 101- Everything You Need to Know About the Deadly Mineral).
While exposure may seem unavoidable, here are five preventative steps industrial workers can take to lower their risk of asbestos exposure.
1. Wear a Respirator
This may be the most important step in prevention, since asbestos exposure occurs when someone inhales or swallows the mineral’s microscopic fibers.
Respirators should be worn while working with asbestos-containing products. A standard paper dust mask or handkerchief covering your nose and mouth will not protect you from the microscopic fibers (to find out which respirator is right for your work environment, read 6 Factors to Consider When Choosing a Respiratory Protection Device).
Asbestos fibers can remain airborne for hours after someone disturbs asbestos products. If possible, workers should wear respirators at all times while on the job site.
2. Be Aware of Contaminated Clothing
While protective clothing and equipment can protect you from other workplace dangers, these items can be easily contaminated with asbestos dust.
Workers can unknowingly track or carry toxic asbestos fibers home on their shoes, clothing, hair, or work tools, putting them and their families at risk of secondhand asbestos exposure.
Contaminated clothing should be cleaned in a controlled environment to limit exposure. Workers may also consider changing clothes before returning home from work.
3. Dispose of Asbestos Materials Correctly
Asbestos removal should only be done by trained professionals and workers should follow proper abatement methods to ensure complete safety. It’s important for workers to take their own precautions when working with asbestos, especially when removing or disposing of asbestos-containing materials.
For more detailed advice, see the Environmental Protection Agency's guidelines for proper abatement practices.
4. Ask Your Employer About Risks
When it comes to working around asbestos, the more informed you are the better.
If you are unsure of asbestos dangers in your workplace, ask your employer. Being proactive and staying informed about asbestos safety is one of the most important steps in prevention.
Be aware of materials you work with that may contain asbestos. Ensure you have the proper protective equipment to be working around the toxic mineral (see Employee Rights - What PPE Does My Employer Need to Provide? to find out what equipment you have a right to demand).
Workers should report any unsafe work conditions to OSHA.
5. Undergo Screenings and Preventative Check-ups
Mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases have no cure, but early detection is the key to longer survival.
If you work with or around asbestos, you should get regular check-ups and annual screenings.
Most asbestos-related diseases take decades to develop. Mesothelioma has a latency period of 20-50 years after initial exposure to asbestos.
You should let your primary care physician know about your exposure history. Many asbestos diseases carry symptoms that mirror other illnesses such as the flu or pneumonia. Common symptoms of mesothelioma include dry cough, fever, chest pain, and breathlessness.
If you experience these symptoms and have a history of working with asbestos, consult your doctor immediately.
As an industrial worker, you may not always be in control of the types of materials you are expected to work with. Taking these precautions is the best way to ensure you are aware of your environment and how you can minimize potentially dangerous exposure. When you work near hazardous materials like asbestos, make your safety a priority.