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Asbestos Exposure in the Workplace

The use of asbestos has dropped significantly in recent decades, but the threat of occupational exposure to the toxic substance remains real today.

This is not the time to drop your guard. Vigilance is critical. Protect yourself on the job.

Most asbestos products are banned — making new construction generally safer now — but asbestos exposure in the workplace remains a problem for many professions.

Firefighters, shipyard workers, power plant workers, construction workers and industrial workers are at high risk. So are plumbers, electricians, oil refinery workers and cement plant workers. An estimated 75 occupational groups are exposed to some level of asbestos today.

Some jobs expose their workers to only low levels of asbestos, or the exposures are infrequent, but the toxic asbestos fibers still can accumulate over time.

After unknowingly inhaling or ingesting it, the asbestos fibers slowly cause biological changes that eventually can lead to major health problems. They can cause asbestosis, lung cancer or mesothelioma — a rare and aggressive cancer that attacks the lining around the lungs or abdomen.

Asbestos use continues today in new roofing materials and coatings, cement sheets, some pipeline wrap, floor tiles and millboard.

A renovation, remodeling job on an older structure or even a demolition can become a health-risk nightmare. Through much of the 20th century, asbestos was used extensively in commercial and residential structures. Disturbing those structures releases toxic fibers into the air.

Asbestos was once highly coveted for its ability to strengthen and resist heat. As it ages, though, it becomes brittle and especially dangerous.

Firefighters often walk into situations with airborne asbestos everywhere. A power plant worker is constantly around older, heat resistant products like spray and pipe insulation. Ships being repaired or maintained often are covered with asbestos materials.

The American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine recently estimated that at least 1.3 million construction industry workers today are still at risk for occupational asbestos exposure.

Job site standards now are designed to minimize the release of microscopic asbestos fibers, but here are a few tips to follow, regardless of the workplace:

•    Make sure the work area is well ventilated.
•    Isolate the area where asbestos is being disturbed to avoid spreading any toxic fibers.
•    Wet down or use wetting agents on any asbestos materials being disturbed or disposed.
•    Encourage prompt cleanup and disposal of asbestos contaminated debris.
•    Use a respirator and the proper protective gear if asbestos is present.
•    Leave work clothing at the job site, making sure it is cleaned by a crew trained in asbestos contamination.
•    No dry sweeping or shoveling of dust during the cleanup process.
•    Proper asbestos abatement methods should be followed. A licensed abatement company should be used.

Caution is important because asbestos dust can be easily spread on a jobsite, exposing those who don't handle it directly. Bringing it home on clothes, tools or hair and exposing other members of the family is a horrifying prospect.

It's easy to ignore the warnings because asbestos-related illnesses can take decades to develop. The latency period between exposure and diagnosis of mesothelioma cancer can be anywhere from 20-50 years. It's why companies were so slow to stop using it despite the well-known toxicity.

Although much has been done to eliminate asbestos and make workplaces safer, asbestos products remain prevalent today.
Protect yourself.

Tim Povtak is a content writer for The Mesothelioma Center and Asbestos.com.