Despite the fact that asbestos has been known and used by humans for thousands of years and as early as 100 AD, there are written reports about the link between asbestos and illness, for much of the twentieth century, asbestos was used in myriad of products from clothing to construction materials. A shortlist of products where asbestos was prevalent in the twentieth century includes the following: firewalls, fire blankets, brakes, dental cast linings, vinyl floors, stage curtains, gas mask filters and wine filters. What this means is that asbestos, which we now know to be an extremely toxic substance, was–and in some cases still is–lurking in the buildings where we work and in equipment we use on a regular basis, including equipment that was ironically designed to protect us from other safety dangers.

If asbestos is toxic and we have known about its harmful effects for many decades, one may wonder why it remains a problem. While it is a known cause of mesothelioma cancer and other diseases and has been banned in more than 50 countries worldwide, asbestos is not banned in the United States or Canada. This means that even in 2016, asbestos remains a problem in many North American workplaces and one that employers need to address to ensure the protection of their workers. Today’s post examines where and how asbestos impacts workplaces, its negative health impacts, and how education and training can be used to minimize the risk of asbestos exposures.

How to Protect Workers from Asbestos

What is asbestos and why is it dangerous?

The Mesothelioma Center defines asbestos as “a naturally occurring mineral that once was lauded for its versatility, recognized for its heat resistance, tensile strength and insulating properties, and used for everything from fire-proof vests to home and commercial construction.”  The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) indicates that there are several types of asbestos, including chrysotile, amosite, crocidolite, tremolite, anthophyllite and actinolite.  While all commercial asbestos types are known carcinogens, some types are more common and considered more dangerous than others. Chrysotile is the most common type of asbestos, and its level of danger is something that continues to be debated.

Mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer caused nearly exclusively by asbestos exposure. The cancer attacks the thin linings that surround organs in the chest and abdomen. Lung cancer and asbestosis are other related diseases. In all cases, the cause is breathing in asbestos fibers.

High-risk Occupations

Because asbestos was once considered an answer to myriad of problems, asbestos made its way into buildings, machines and protective equipment in a staggeringly wide range of workplaces over the course of the twentieth century. Especially high-risk occupations, however, include the following:

Miners: It goes without saying that miners who work in asbestos mines have long been at risk.

Military personnel: Submarines, frigates, aircraft carriers and cruisers are among the military equipment known to contain asbestos; as a result, current members of the military and veterans are both at risk for asbestos-related illnesses.

Construction workers: Ceiling and floor tiles, drywall and insulation are just some of the products that once contained asbestos and some cases still do; as a result construction workers are especially at risk and in some cases, may not know they are encountering asbestos when engaged in a job (e.g., renovating an older building).

Educators and school personnel: Most schools in the United States were built between 1950 and 1969 when asbestos was commonplace, and it is estimated that even most schools build before 1980 contain asbestos; as old schools wear down, the risk of asbestos exposure is great, which also puts educators at risk on the job.

Other high-risk occupations include those that entail working in shipyards, oil refineries, chemical plants and power plants where asbestos products are also prevalent in buildings and/or equipment.

Education and Training on Asbestos Safety

The best ways to protect workers from asbestos is to ensure they understand where it is most likely to be lurking in the workplace and how to prevent asbestos exposure before it ever happen. It is also essential for employers to be in compliance with the the Occupational Safety and Health Association‘s standards on asbestos use in the workplace.  For more on the OSHA’s standards and to initiative an asbestos safety training initiative in your workplace, see eLeaP’s training video: Asbestos Awareness.