Every day as many as 1.3 million people in the U.S. go to a workplace where they're exposed to significant amounts of asbestos, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). For decades, the link between asbestos and serious health problems like mesothelioma has been well-established. But many employees have more questions than they do answers concerning asbestos. What is asbestos? In which occupations are you most likely to encounter significant levels of asbestos? What steps can be taken to protect employees from mesothelioma and other health problems linked to asbestos exposure? Here are some answers.
Asbestos in the Workplace: Health Risks
Asbestos is a naturally occurring, fibrous material. In part because of its durability and resistance to heat and flame, asbestos has been utilized in dozens of industries and occupations for decades. But, long before its popularity in industry peaked, asbestos became linked to health problems. And, over the years, thousands of workers have developed a deadly asbestos-related disease called mesothelioma.
The dangers of asbestos have been clear for decades now. Everyone breathes in trace amounts of asbestos each day, since it occurs naturally in the environment. But, because asbestos fibers can be inhaled, even short-term exposure to significant levels of asbestos on the job can lead to breathing problems, coughing, and shortness of breath. Asbestos has been classified as a carcinogen (cancer-causing) substance. So the most serious health risks come from long-term exposure to asbestos on the job -- especially for older people who may have spent decades in the workplace before the advent of safety measures that help protect employees from most asbestos exposure in the modern workplace.
Serious health problems related to asbestos exposure include:
- lung cancer
- mesothelioma (a form of cancer that invades the lining of the chest and abdomen; learn more about mesothelioma in Nolo's article Mesothelioma: Symptoms, Treatment, and Causes)
- asbestosis (lung inflammation and buildup that can cause coughing, difficulty breathing, and permanent lung damage)
- colorectal and gastrointestinal cancers, and
- abnormalities (thickening and calcification) in the lining of the chest cavity.
Jobs That Have a Higher Risk of Asbestos Exposure
Even now, decades after the advent of health concerns about asbestos and the rise in deadly asbestos-related diseases like mesothelioma, exposure to asbestos is still quite common (even necessary) in some lines of work. Here's a list of occupations and industries that have traditionally seen workers exposed to significant levels of asbestos:
- construction, renovation, and demolition of commercial and residential buildings
- paper mills
- heating and cooling equipment repair
- automotive repair (especially brake and clutch repair)
- manufacture of products containing asbestos
- roofing, and
- janitorial jobs in buildings that contain deteriorating asbestos.
Employees' Rights to Protection From Asbestos Exposure
If you work with or around significant amounts of asbestos as part of your job -- or if you're worried about exposure to asbestos in the workplace -- talk to your supervisor or union about any health risks and the steps that are being taken to minimize those risks.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and other workplace safety agencies are supposed to carefully regulate and monitor asbestos exposure on the job -- they even set permissible exposure limits for different kinds of industries. So chances are, if your job does involve exposure to significant levels of asbestos, your employer is legally required to take certain steps to protect you and your coworkers from any health risks involving asbestos.
Depending on the industry you work in and the specifics of your job, you may be legally entitled to receive -- and your employer may be legally obligated to provide -- the following kinds of on-the-job protections from asbestos exposure:
- training of employees who will be working with and around asbestos
- properly ventilated workspaces
- monitoring of employees for asbestos exposure levels (including daily monitoring for workers involved in the removal of asbestos-containing materials)
- warning signs and instructions in areas where asbestos-related work is performed
- protective clothing like coveralls, gloves, foot coverings, face shields, and goggles
- protective equipment like respirators
- showers and other post-exposure precautions, and
- medical examinations for certain workers who are exposed to high levels of asbestos.
Most of these safety measures are covered by OSHA regulations. Learn more about employees' rights to a safe workplace with Nolo's Your Health and Safety at Work FAQ.
You can find more information on asbestos in the workplace, including OSHA standards and protections for workers, on the OSHA Asbestos website at www.osha.gov/SLTC/asbestos/.
Lawsuits Over Asbestos in the Workplace
If your employment history (or your current job) involves working with or around significant amounts of asbestos, you may have questions about lawsuits over asbestos exposure. If so, here are a few things to keep in mind.
Who is legally responsible? Generally speaking, if an employee (or former employee) suffers from health problems that are caused by asbestos in the workplace, a lawsuit would be filed against some or all of the following:
- the company that manufactured the asbestos or any protective equipment that failed to work properly (learn more in Nolo's Product Liability FAQ)
- owners of the premises where the work was being performed, and
- contractors and sub-contractors involved in the work being performed.
(Note: workers compensation -- and not a lawsuit -- is usually the exclusive remedy even when an employer has failed to properly protect workers from asbestos exposure.)
In some cases, an asbestos victim compensation fund might already be in place, which may streamline the financial recovery process in an asbestos-related lawsuit. Learn more about these kinds of cases in Nolo's article Asbestos and Mesothelioma Lawsuits: What to Expect.
Finding a lawyer. If you think you might have developed some type of asbestos-related illness or are concerned because you've been exposed to asbestos on the job, you may want to talk to an experienced attorney. At the very least, you may be entitled to health monitoring and testing, which can mean valuable early detection of any asbestos-related health problems.
Remember that mesothelioma and health problems linked to asbestos exposure can take years to show up. Even if it's been a decade or more since you worked with or around asbestos, you may not be out of the woods yet when it comes to potential health problems. You can use Nolo's Lawyer Directory to get in-depth profiles of asbestos and mesothelioma attorneys in your area. To learn more about how an attorney can help you, check out Nolo's article How to Hire a Mesothelioma or Asbestos Lawyer.