Workplace aspects of asbestos

If you watch late-night television, you’re probably accustomed to commercials from personal injury attorneys seeking clients who may have suffered ill effects from workplace exposure to asbestos. While recognition of the potential hazards of asbestos have led to significant reductions of its use in construction and industry, it’s possible that workers may still encounter materials that contain asbestos during demolition or renovation operations. Developing an understanding of asbestos and the potential hazards it creates is the first step in protecting workers from exposure.

A naturally occurring mineral fiber, asbestos has properties of heat and corrosion resistance that led to its widespread use through much of the 20th century. Asbestos fibers were woven into insulation to be used around pipes, in ceiling tiles, and in walls because of that insulation’s superior ability to block heat transfer. The durability of asbestos led to its incorporation in applications such as automotive parts, where it was a key component of brake pads and engine gaskets, in the building of naval vessels and other ships, roofing shingles, and in vinyl floor tiles.

Asbestos fibers are too tiny to be seen by the naked eye, and when materials that contained asbestos were broken or abraded, those fibers would float into the air. Workers would inhale (or swallow) the fibers, which would accumulate in organs such as the lungs and the digestive tract. Long after asbestos use became common, medical researchers learned that those fibers were a carcinogen that has since been linked to lung cancer and other diseases (particularly a type of cancer called mesothelioma) that could develop decades after someone was exposed to the fibers.

During the 1970s, increasing evidence of the hazards led medical and government authorities to institute a series of bans on asbestos, and its use began to decline. Manufacturers began to develop replacement products from materials that were judged to be safer. However, by that time, millions of workers and consumers had been exposed to asbestos.

Although asbestos is no longer being used in products, its prevalence in the marketplace means that many workers could still become exposed to it. This is particularly true of construction workers who may be performing demolitions or renovations of structures or equipment that had been constructed with materials containing the fibers. When those materials are cut, sanded, or damaged, they may release asbestos fibers, exposing workers and others in the area.

Because of the potential health dangers of asbestos exposure, OSHA has adopted a series of industry-focused standards to address the likely hazards in those industries. Those standards include permissible exposure and excursion limits for workers who are in areas where asbestos has been found to be present and where fibers are likely to be released. Air quality must be monitored to ensure that workers are not exposed to excessive levels.

If monitoring shows that the amount of fibers in the air exceeds safe levels, employers must take steps to limit exposure. These can include engineering controls and adapting work practices to reduce the potential for contact with the fibers, as well as personal protective equipment such as approved respirators. Another issue with the fibers is the potential for workers to accidentally carry them home on clothing. It may be necessary to decontaminate workers each day. In addition, eating and drinking should not be allowed in areas where there is potential exposure to fibers.

Finally, workers need to be careful about performing tasks in areas where asbestos fibers may be present. Dusting or dry sweeping in those areas could cause fibers to become airborne. Sanding materials containing asbestos could release fibers. The same is true to handling waste materials that may be contaminated with asbestos. Tasks need to be performed in ways that eliminate or minimize exposure.

As time goes on, and asbestos-containing materials are replaced with safer alternatives, the potential danger to workers will be reduced. However, for the foreseeable future, the possibility of encountering this carcinogen remains, and workers and employers would be wise to proceed with caution.

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