Respiratory Health Hazards On the Job: Asbestos Awareness

July 30, 2020 

 

World Lung Cancer Day is August 1st, and is a time to recognize the importance of lung health. As the leading cause of cancer deaths in the United States, early detection and prevention around lung related diseases can be beneficial for timely treatment and support. Of the 200,000+ new lung cancer cases each year, as much as 15% are caused by occupational exposures to carcinogens, including asbestos.

Asbestos is a hazard that is still pertinent in several industries today because of its use in a variety of materials and products for decades during the 20th century. In the US alone asbestos related diseases kill 12,000-15,000 annually. This number is suspected to be higher because diseases caused by asbestos are not usually reported or tracked. For people who work in industries with a high risk of exposure, being aware of the dangers of asbestos can help mitigate serious health conditions later in life.

Known to cause cancer and other serious health ailments, asbestos is a major health concern. Once in the body, microscopic needle-like fibers embed into crucial organ linings and tissues, where they cause inflammation and irritation. Asbestos predominantly targets the lungs and leads to respiratory issues such as coughing, wheezing, difficulty breathing, and chest pains. While these symptoms can be written off as the flu, bronchitis, or pneumonia, they can actually be early signs of more serious diseases such as mesothelioma, lung cancer, or asbestosis. Due to the long latency period of these conditions, it can be several years before a diagnosis is accurately identified, which can alter treatment options and prognosis.

Because it is so hard to destroy asbestos fibers, the body cannot break down or remove them once they are lodged in the lungs or body tissues. They remain in place, where they cause disease. This is why education and awareness about the handling and use of this mineral is crucial to protect individuals from exposure.

Asbestos was once seen as a cost-effective and durable additive, incorporated in a multitude of products due to its resilience to heat, corrosion, and chemicals. Utilized in anything from building materials to consumer items, asbestos was in thousands of products at the height of its use. Even though asbestos has been largely scaled down with regulations now in place, occupational asbestos exposure is still the leading cause of mesothelioma and other life-threatening diseases.

It’s important to identify which occupations face the highest risk of exposure to ensure workers take the necessary precautions to avoid contact with this mineral. Employees in the construction industry are among those with the highest rates of exposure. The CDC estimates that 1.3 million construction workers come into contact with asbestos on the job each year. Specific occupations that have seen some of the highest incidents include:

  • Insulation Installers
  • Carpenters
  • Electricians
  • Plumbers
  • Renovators
  • Demolition crews
  • Maintenance and Repair workers

While OSHA outlines different asbestos regulations based on the industry, it’s the employer’s responsibility to follow various procedures that protect their employees from inhaling asbestos fibers. This can include monitoring air quality, performing risk assessments, and communicating asbestos control plans to employees before starting a job. Not only that, but it is essential to provide, use, and maintain appropriate personal protective equipment when asbestos poses a risk in any capacity. Although awareness of asbestos health risks has improved over the years, some employers still may not be taking the proper steps to prevent workplace exposures. Workers should take their own precautions around asbestos as well and report any unsafe work conditions to OSHA.

Even though OSHA states that no amount of asbestos is safe in humans, industries in the U.S. still legally import, use and sell both raw asbestos and products made with it. Asbestos is only banned in less than a dozen products, and up to 1% is allowed in new materials made. Although there are roughly 67 countries that have banned asbestos, the heavy use of the mineral in other developing countries still leaves millions at risk of exposure annually. Eliminating the use of asbestos in any new products, as well as advocating for a ban in the U.S., can help alleviate the rate of asbestos related diseases in the future and keep workers and families safe.