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Construction Worker Asbestos Exposure

Construction workers in almost every trade face some level of elevated risk for cancers and lung disease caused by exposure to asbestos. This is on top of the fact that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration deems construction among the most dangerous industries in the U.S. While the risk of construction worker falls, electrocutions, struck-by accidents or caught-in-between hazards are high profile, asbestos exposure remains a less obvious danger.

At The Law Offices of Jeffrey S. Glassman, our Boston mesothelioma attorneys have successfully handled cases involving construction worker asbestos exposure that later resulted in serious illness.

Claims for damages in mesothelioma lawsuits may be filed against:

  • Companies that mined raw asbestos materials
  • Companies that made products that contained asbestos
  • Companies that used asbestos-based products in their own manufacturing processes

Asbestos, a heat and flame-resistant material, was once used in a plethora of construction materials through the 1970s, at which time there was increased public awareness about the toxicity of friable, airborne fibers. It’s the only confirmed cause of mesothelioma, an aggressive, terminal cancer that arises several decades after exposure.

Asbestos in Construction Materials

Years ago, workers most at risk for exposure to this deadly mineral were those mining and milling the raw materials, as well as asbestos product manufacturers and construction workers, who often used those end products.

Many construction and building materials were historically made with asbestos, including:

  • Insulation
  • Floor backing and drywall taping compounds
  • Ductwork connectors and flexible duct connectors
  • Construction mastics and gunning mix
  • Adhesives/ cement
  • HVAC systems
  • Plastics
  • Vinyl products
  • Textiles (including rope and protective gear)
  • Floor tiles
  • Ceiling tiles

Why use asbestos if it’s so dangerous? Asbestos was cheap. It was also flexible and durable and was naturally heat-resistant and worked well as an agent for fireproofing and insulation.

Exposure to asbestos among construction workers peaked in the 1960s and 1970s, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This dropped after the 1970s, when more regulations aimed at worker protection were put in place.

Numerous regulations have significantly undercut the use of certain products, though asbestos in and of itself isn’t outright banned.

As the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported, the Toxic Substances Control Act barred the manufacture, import, process and distribution of certain asbestos-laden construction materials, including:

  • Flooring felt
  • Specialty paper
  • Commercial paper
  • Rollboard
  • Corrugated paper

There is also the Clean Air Act, which bans asbestos for use in:

  • Pipe insulation and insulation on certain components, such as boilers and hot water tanks
  • Spray-applied surfacing of asbestos
  • Spray-on application of materials containing more than 1 percent asbestos, with a few exceptions

Finally, the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s Consumer Product Safety Act prohibits the use of asbestos in:

  • Wall-patching compounds
  • Artificial fireplace embers

However, there are still many uses of asbestos that are still not banned. Those include:

  • Cement shingles
  • Vinyl floor tiles
  • Pipeline wrap
  • Cement flat-sheet
  • Roof coatings

Products can still be made with small amounts of asbestos, but regulations much more strictly control its use and manage its removal from older buildings than in years past.

Continuing Asbestos Exposure in Construction

When these workers are exposed to asbestos, there may be no immediate or acute health effect upon the first exposure or any recent exposure. In some cases, when asbestos is mixed with other dusts or compounds, it can trigger respiratory symptoms or an asthma episode. However, the real danger is what happens many years down the road.

Latency periods for manifestation of asbestos-related diseases like mesothelioma are typically between 10 and 40 years. That’s why we’ve seen death rates for these conditions climb steadily between the 1960s and 2010, peaking at about 7.5 million asbestosis and mesothelioma deaths in 2000. according to the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health.

These deaths are expected to continue occurring for many decades, even though use of asbestos in construction materials has dropped off. Today, the primary work-related asbestos exposure in the construction industry occurs with:

  • Repair
  • Renovation
  • Removal
  • Maintenance

Just in these activities alone, OSHA estimates 1.3 million construction workers and general industry employees have been exposed to asbestos at work in recent years.

It’s believed 27 million U.S. workers were exposed to airborne asbestos fibers between 1940 and 1979. While past exposures were often much heavier than they are today, that doesn’t mean companies can flout safety guidelines intended to protect construction workers. There is no known safe quantity of asbestos exposure.

NIOSH estimates the percentage of workers exposed to asbestos exceeding their specified limits fell from 6.3 percent in 1994 to 4.3 percent in 2003. That’s still thousands of workers, and a significant portion of those work in construction.

Unfortunately, there is no way to document or diagnose the health impact of a recent exposure to asbestos. Doctors may recommend a person who has been exposed undergo a chest x-ray to serve as a “base-line” so they can monitor and track the development of any asbestos-related diseases.

Construction worker occupations that may be at higher risk of asbestos exposure include:

  • Carpenters
  • Drywallers
  • Electricians
  • Furnace workers
  • Floor covering workers
  • Insulators
  • Iron workers
  • Painters
  • Pipefitters
  • Plasterers
  • Plumbers
  • Roofers
  • Steamfitters
  • Welders

Even construction workers who don’t directly work with asbestos need to be aware they could be at heightened risk because secondary occupational exposure can occur when workspace is shared with others who are handling the material.

There also exists the risk of what is sometimes called “paraoccupational exposures,” which refers to family member exposure to the dust via:

  • A worker’s clothing, hair and skin;
  • Laundering contaminated work clothing.

Today, OSHA mandates via 29 CFR 1926.1001 that employers implement specific quality control procedures to limit or eliminate construction worker risk of exposure to asbestos. The limits and sampling techniques are highly technical, but the bottom line is, construction industry employees have a right to a safe workplace, free of unnecessary risk of exposure to this toxic material.

Construction industry workers who have been exposed to asbestos or who have been diagnosed with an asbestos-related disease should contact an experienced toxic tort litigation attorney.

Contact the Law Offices of Jeffrey S. Glassman today for a free and confidential consultation.

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