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By: Emily Walsh, Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance 

April 2, 2018 

April 1-6 is Asbestos Awareness Week

Asbestos kills approximately 15,000 people in the United States each year. Many of those deaths are work-related and could have been prevented with proper precautions. The first week of April is Global Asbestos Awareness Week, a time when the dangers of asbestos are brought to light so conversations about prevention can take place.

If you are currently working or going into a field where asbestos exposure is common, know the risks, understand safety precautions, and practice your rights.

Health Risks in the Workplace

Asbestos is a fibrous mineral once deemed a “miracle product” because of its heat resistant properties and durability. Mainly used as a building material, asbestos is commonly found in the structure of houses and commercial buildings erected before 1980. Items built using asbestos include, but are not limited to, insulation, piping, textured paints, patching compounds, caulks, cement siding, ceiling tiles, roofing, and vinyl flooring.

The “miracle product” of the 20th century was later determined to be a carcinogen capable of causing a range of respiratory diseases, including mesothelioma cancer. Mesothelioma usually develops within the lining of the lungs, though in rarer cases it may form in the lining of the heart or abdomen. It takes anywhere from 10 to 50 years for signs of the disease to show themselves, and it’s often misdiagnosed as symptoms mirror those of pneumonia or the flu. By the time mesothelioma is accurately diagnosed, the cancer has usually progressed to stage 3.

Today, construction jobs present the highest risk of encountering asbestos, but there are still many jobs that put employee health on the line.

 

Jobs with High Risk

Firefighter

When thinking of occupations that involve working with older homes and buildings, it’s easy to just think construction and forget about the thousands of firefighters who put their lives on the line for us daily. In a dangerous situation most people have the instinct of running in the opposite direction and seeking shelter for themselves. Firefighters run toward the emergency, usually in the form of a burning house or building. Unfortunately, the risk doesn’t end once the fire has ceased. Asbestos in a home or building is typically harmless when left intact, but once the material is disrupted, like during a fire, fibres may become airborne and create an inhalation risk.

The danger also extends to other emergency personnel who assist in the clean up of natural disasters. When homes are destroyed, there is no telling which ones or how many contain asbestos.

Mechanic

Unbeknownst to many, some car parts used to contain asbestos because of its heat resistant properties. For example, asbestos could be found in brake parts, clutch facings, transmission parts, brake pads and linings. Parts today are much safer, yet the concern is still real for mechanics working on older cars.

School faculty

According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), any school built before 1981 is presumed to be built using asbestos materials. Not only is asbestos a huge health threat to teachers, staff, and students, but it is an enormous financial burden as well. The Orangeview School District in California spent $15 million removing asbestos from its elementary schools. The cost came from not only the removal itself, but from bussing students to different schools, costing the district state revenue.

 

Employee rights, reducing hazards

The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) has recognized asbestos as a dangerous carcinogen and has put safety standards into place to protect employees during the construction, alteration, repair, maintenance, renovation and demolition of structures containing asbestos. Existing protections include permissible exposure limits, ensuring that no employee is exposed to conditions above 1.0 asbestos fibres per cubic centimeter over a 30-minute period, workplace assessments to determine if asbestos is present, monitoring to maintain asbestos exposure levels, and keeping records of exposure monitoring for at least 30 years. The employer is responsible for executing these employee protections.

If a worker is concerned about workplace hazards regarding asbestos, or if a worker believes their employer is not following OSHA’s rules, they have the right to file a complaint asking OSHA to inspect their workplace. OSHA will keep all identities confidential so employees can exercise their rights under the law without worrying about retaliation or discrimination.

Global Asbestos Awareness Week serves as a crucial reminder to be diligent about your work environment and aware of your surroundings. Though your employer is legally required, in most instances, to ensure a safe work environment, you must understand your rights and how to take safety precautions. If you believe you are being exposed to a harmful environmental toxin like asbestos on the job, follow OSHA guidelines to prevent a health catastrophe down the line.