Many industries across the world used asbestos for a range of applications, particularly because some of its properties offer a handful of benefits.
For example, asbestos is extremely resistant to high temperatures and most chemicals. It also has no smell, leaves no odour, does not penetrate the soil and does not evaporate or dissolve in water.
Despite its beneficial properties, it is well-known that asbestos has several adverse effects on human health. While it is unlikely that modern structures contain asbestos, any buildings constructed before 1980 are potentially hazardous. Although there are governmental regulations regarding asbestos, there are still risks of exposure to asbestos in certain occupations.
Learn more about asbestos exposure symptoms, what measures help control asbestos and which careers are in danger of potential asbestos exposure. You’ll also explore some of the top asbestos safety tips to keep in mind.
Asbestos Exposure Symptoms
Asbestos is a naturally-occurring material found in rock and soil and composed of long, thin and fibrous crystals. Each fibre in asbestos contains microscopic fibrils, which tend to get released into the atmosphere.
The most common form of asbestos is chrysotile, though others include tremolite, actinoliate, anthophyllite and crocidolite.
Regardless of the type, all forms of asbestos are proven carcinogens, substances capable of causing cancer. When someone is exposed to, swallows or inhales asbestos, it can cause dangerous respiratory and lung health conditions that range from mild to severe.
Once asbestos particles reach someone’s lungs or tissue in their digestive system, they can stay there forever, causing deadly diseases, like mesothelioma, asbestosis and others.
Long-term exposure to asbestos causes airborne particles to become lodged in the lung’s alveoli, which are the tiny sacs in the lungs. The lungs and blood exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide in the alveoli when we breathe in and out.
Sometimes, the symptoms of exposure to asbestos take years to reveal themselves. Smokers who are exposed to asbestos face a higher risk of harmful health effects. After asbestos exposure, people often experience the following symptoms, according to the National Health Service (NHS) in the UK:
- Persistent, dry cough.
- Shortness of breath.
- Chest or shoulder pain or tightness.
- Fatigue or extreme tiredness.
- Dry, cracking sounds in the lungs when inhaling.
- Fingertips and toes appear to be wider and rounder than normal (a.k.a clubbing).
Many people who become exposed to asbestos also deal with scarring of lung tissue, making it stiff, which means the lungs cannot contract and expand normally.
Scarred lung tissue can cause other negative symptoms, including unexplained weight loss and aching muscles or joints. Ultimately, a worker who’s exposed to asbestos could develop pulmonary fibrosis, a disease with no cure.
Safety Measures Required to Control Asbestos Exposure
As the negative effects of asbestos exposure became more pronounced, it became necessary to regulate the usage of the material in certain occupations. Regulating asbestos is essential to decreasing the likelihood of worker exposure.
For example, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) heavily regulate asbestos. Here are some of the safety measures required to control asbestos exposure for workers:
- Employers must conduct personal exposure monitoring.
- Employees must receive hazard awareness training if there is potential exposure to asbestos.
- Airborne asbestos levels can never exceed the legal limits of worker exposure.
- Worksites must have established regulated areas and controlled work practices.
- Employers must implement engineering controls, such as ventilation systems with high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters, to reduce airborne asbestos levels.
- Provide workers with appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE).
- Post hazard signs in potential exposure areas.
If the legal limits and duration time of exposure to asbestos are exceeded, employers are required to oversee the medical monitoring of their workers. Ultimately, organizations must follow all OSHA and EPA standards to protect all employees who are at risk of exposure.
10 Occupations at Risk of Asbestos Exposure
Despite acknowledging that asbestos exposure is extremely hazardous, there are still some ways asbestos is still used today. While federal regulations ban many uses, the U.S. has yet to ban the use of asbestos entirely.
Because asbestos is still around, workers in some specific industries or occupations are at an increased risk of exposure. Below are 10 modern occupations where asbestos exposure risks could cause adverse or life-threatening effects on human health.
1. Construction/Demolition Workers
Since asbestos has beneficial properties when used to build structures, construction workers are at an increased risk of asbestos exposure. Most buildings constructed between 1920 and 1980 were made with asbestos and likely still contain asbestos to this day.
Any construction professionals working on these buildings, whether it is renovating, retrofitting or demolishing them, could be exposed to asbestos.
Plumbers who primarily work in homes or businesses also risk asbestos exposure. Plumbers often work with other tradespeople who might use asbestos-containing materials, too.
Some common plumbing materials that may contain asbestos include tiles, swimming pools, tank insulation and hot water pipes.
Research shows that employees of U.S. shipyards can also face higher chances of developing mesothelioma from exposure to asbestos.
Although the ship recycling industry is growing and recycling is an established practice in the industry, scrapping ships can put workers in danger. While scrapping a ship, workers can be exposed to asbestos, persistent oil and toxic compounds, such as Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs).
Anyone who fights fires understands that they might be exposed to toxins, chemicals and carcinogens, including asbestos, which negatively affects their health.
Firefighters working on older buildings face higher risks because these buildings are more likely to contain asbestos. Compared to the average person, firefighters work in one of the most dangerous industries and must deal with potential asbestos exposure and the health effects associated with it.
Modern farmers and other agriculture professionals use a plethora of equipment throughout their operations. Over the years, the use of asbestos has created problems for farmers.
Animal harvesting farmers often face a higher risk of exposure compared to crop farmers. It is also possible that farmers exposed to asbestos bring traces of it home due to dust on clothing, potentially exposing their families to asbestos.
Since asbestos was commonly used because of its exceptional resistance to heat, many types of electrical equipment could be dangerous for electricians.
When climbing through attics or basements, electricians may encounter asbestos-containing materials. Electrical ducts, drywall, circuit breakers and textured paints are some of the products that might contain asbestos.
By the same token, insulators are in danger of asbestos exposure due to the jobs they perform daily.
Insulators install, maintain, repair and replace thermal insulation in residential, commercial and industrial buildings. Insulators who work at factories, paper mills, schools and power stations could be exposed to asbestos while working.
It might be surprising, but teachers could also be exposed to asbestos. If schools built before 1980 still have the same walls, tiles and ceilings, asbestos and other toxins can still be present.
In addition to negatively affecting the health of teachers, students and other school personnel could be exposed and develop symptoms.
A boilermaker is responsible for erecting and repairing boilers in various buildings, particularly those that still use steam as a power and heat source.
Asbestos was often used as insulation for industrial and residential buildings, though it is less common today. Many boilers today were built half a century ago, meaning they could still contain asbestos.
10. Auto Mechanics
Mechanics who work with auto parts, such as brake shoes, linings and other friction materials can face asbestos exposure.
Auto technicians who worked in the industry before 1980 may be at higher risk of developing asbestosis or mesothelioma due to prolonged exposure. Mechanics often cannot tell if parts contain asbestos just by looking at them, which makes it challenging for them to protect themselves.
Asbestos Safety Tips for 2022
In addition to implementing the control measures above, there are some other asbestos safety tips worth mentioning to help reduce the chances of unsafe asbestos exposure.
Here are some best practices employees and employers should know:
- Earn an EPA certification for asbestos abatement.
- Use non-powered tools if possible to reduce the amount of dust on a site.
- Wet materials and surfaces could cause asbestos-containing materials to enter the air.
- Wear PPE such as gloves, protective clothing, eye protection and facemasks with filtering of P100.
- Always work in ventilated areas so air can circulate freely.
- Shower immediately to clean hair, hands and body thoroughly after leaving a worksite to reduce spreading particles resulting from asbestos.
Because asbestos poses such significant health risks, it is important to reduce the chances of people becoming exposed to it. There is no safe level of asbestos exposure — even minimal exposure can damage one’s health.
Protecting Worker Health by Reducing the Chances of Asbestos Exposure
It is reported that it can take up to 50 years for someone to experience the negative effects of asbestos exposure. Workers and their families could still be at risk of adverse health conditions due to past exposure, which is quite concerning.
Retirees, senior citizens and military veterans might be caught off-guard by these health conditions because they might think the days of potential asbestos exposure are behind them.
Rather than create more health problems for these essential workers, employers must focus on preventing asbestos exposure and prioritizing worker safety.
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My name is Beth. I’m a health writer with 3+ years of experience, and I run an online wellness magazine, Body+Mind.