Occupational Asbestos Exposure and Mesothelioma

Asbestos in the Workplace Image

Did you know that there are about 3,000 new cases of mesothelioma, a disorder associated with exposure to asbestos, every year (in the US)? It’s true.

This is a high number, to be sure. And that high number becomes even more grave when you realize that diagnosed patients have a life expectancy of 12-21 months after diagnosis, that only 23% live longer than a year after diagnosis, and that on average, there are 2,500 mesothelioma related deaths in a year.

I recently met up with Shawn Tallet, a Health Advocate with the Mesothelioma and Asbestos Awareness Center (MAAC), and he shared those numbers above with me. Shawn’s been nice enough to tell us a little more about asbestos, asbestos exposure in the workplace, and mesothelioma in the interview below. Our thanks to Shawn, to the MAAC, and to all the good people working to help prevent asbestos-related illness and to help those who do suffer from it.

In addition to the information below, I’d point you to the MAAC’s blog, which has a lot of helpful articles on the topic. And we’ve included a short sample of our own Online Asbestos Awareness Safety Training Course at the bottom of this article as well.

Asbestos: What it Is, How it’s Been Used & How its Used Today

Convergence: Could you start by telling us what asbestos is, how it was used in the past, and how it is used now?

Shawn: Sure thing. Asbestos is a fibrous, silicate mineral found naturally in the environment. Its use dates back to ancient times, but it became more widespread with the Industrial Revolution. Lauded for its strength and fire resistance, asbestos was used in virtually everything, including roofing, insulation, flooring, and electrical applications.

Asbestos Fibers Image

There has been substantial legislation passed globally in the time since, and now asbestos is used primarily in the chlor-alkali industry as a separating agent. However, in some developing countries, asbestos is still used quite substantially.

Negative Health Consequences of Asbestos Exposure

Convergence: What are some negative health consequences of exposure to asbestos?

Shawn: Asbestos exposure can be very detrimental to human health, with the most severe condition being mesothelioma, a rare, serious form of cancer directly linked to the mineral. Lung cancer and asbestosis have also been been linked to exposure.

Convergence: Can you tell us in more detail exactly what leads to a hazardous asbestos exposure?

Shawn: Absolutely. When asbestos-containing materials (known as ACMs) become disturbed, whether through natural aging, abrasion, or renovation, they are liable to easily break and release fragments into the air. This asbestos-containing particulate matter may not even be visible to the naked eye! These particles can become lodged in the linings of organs when inhaled,, where they can stimulate cancer growth.

Asbestos in Lungs Image

Asbestos in Occupational Settings

Convergence: In a manufacturing setting, how can one identify asbestos?

Shawn: Workers are often aware of the products they’re working with. Asbestos is still currently used in brake pads and other automotive parts, as well as corrugated sheeting. The real danger of asbestos occurs when the material becomes worn out and susceptible to fragmentation. Corporations using the material will often utilize engineering controls and other means of safety implementations to maximize OSHA compliance and promote a healthy work site.

Note: The word “friable” is often used to describe asbestos that’s become “worn out and susceptible to fragmentation” as Shawn explained above.

Friable Asbestos Image

Convergence: In a construction and/or demolition setting, how can one identify asbestos?

Shawn:  Construction workers and contractors are generally familiar with asbestos and where it can be found, but there are still some issues in adherence to protective protocol throughout the industry. Any home or structure built before 1980 in the United States runs the risk of containing asbestos somewhere, but contractors can often find it in vermiculite insulation and prefabricated cement. There are a litany of carcinogens construction workers can come into contact with, but asbestos may perhaps be the most severe.

Tip: This MAAC web page has even more detailed information on occupational asbestos exposure. They list the following as high-risk occupational for asbestos exposure:

  • Construction workers
  • Shipyard workers
  • Mechanics
  • Plant workers
  • Firefighters

What To Do If You Suspect the Presence of Asbestos in the Worksite

Convergence: What should someone do if he/she thinks there’s asbestos in the work site?

Shawn: The best way to verify the presence of asbestos is to alert a manager or supervisor, and DO NOT attempt to identify/remove the material themselves. A red flag for ACMs are generally something like debris or worn-down building materials, so those visuals on the jobsite could indicate potential for exposure. I think safety-first practices are imperative and often required on the jobsite.


Asbestos Exposure, Mesothelioma, and the Latency Period

Convergence: How long does it take for a worker to begin suffering the negative consequences of asbestos exposure?

Shawn: Mesothelioma is notorious for its latency period. Part of the battle in the initial stages of litigation for patients vs. Manufacturing/Construction companies is proving when and where the disease was contracted. Due to the disease’s latency period following exposure, the cancer won’t manifest into any symptoms until decades after. Mesothelioma was often seen primarily in middle aged, working class men, but the demographics are now expanding significantly.

Convergence: Obviously, avoiding exposure is the key, but is there anything a worker can do after exposure?

Shawn: It is very difficult to pinpoint when, where, and how much exposure occurs. Most mesothelioma patients develop the illness after chronic exposure, but both the EPA and OSHA have agreed that no amount of asbestos is exposure can be considered safe. It is important for workers who are in high-risk occupations to talk with their doctor and ensure that proper monitoring takes place; proper detection and monitoring is key! The best practice is adherence to normal safety procedures in an effort to reduce any exposure whatsoever.

Tip: Check out the MAAC’s “Treatment” page for more on this.

Asbestos Damage is Permanent Image

Convergence: Anything else people should know about asbestos and mesothelioma?

Shawn: Mesothelioma gets a lot of attention due to its association with legal advertisements, but it is a serious and predominantly fatal disease without a cure. A proactive approach to exposure avoidance, including appropriate safety measures (i.e. engineering controls, personal protective equipment) can help eliminate threats at the jobsite and keep workers healthy and safe.

Conclusion: Asbestos, Asbestos Exposure on the Job, and Mesothelioma

We’d like to thank Shawn for his time and for sharing his expertise on issues related to asbestos, asbestos exposure, and mesothelioma.

Shawn touched on quite a few things, including the importance of using engineering controls to improve safety when working with asbestos and monitoring/health evaluation programs for occupational safety related to asbestos. In addition to that, of course, proper safety training also plays an important role. Workers should always receive training about the location of any asbestos in their work area, how to work safely in its presence, when not to work in its presence, and how to report it to management if some is discovered. To help with that training, we offer an Online Asbestos Awareness training course–the images you’ve seen earlier are from that course, as is the short sample video below.

So remember, work productively but always be safe! We want you back for another day. And be sure to DOWNLOAD OUR FREE ONLINE SAFETY TRAINING BUYER’S GUIDE CHECKLIST, below.

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Jeffrey Dalto

Jeffrey Dalto

Jeffrey Dalto is an Instructional Designer and the Senior Learning & Development Specialist at Convergence Training. He's worked in training/learning & development for 20 years, in safety and safety training for more than 10, is an OSHA Authorized Outreach Trainer for General Industry OSHA 10 and 30, and is a member of the committee creating the upcoming ANSI Z490.2 national standard on online environmental, health, and safety training.

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