The mineral asbestos has been used for almost 150 years to make products that can withstand a high level of heat, such as steam pipe insulation and brake pads. About 70 years ago, the scientific and medical communities began to test for and document the significant health risks posed when asbestos fibers are inhaled. Among the most important findings of these studies is a list of industries and occupations that have the highest risk of exposure to asbestos-containing products.
The workers most obviously at risk are those employed in the mining and milling of asbestos and the manufacture of asbestos-containing products. The Johns Manville Company was the leading manufacturer of asbestos insulation and similar materials. Its employees were constantly exposed to asbestos fibers, and their claims for compensation for injury to their health pushed the company into bankruptcy. But workers in other industries were also at risk for asbestos product exposure.
Construction workers were often exposed to asbestos because the mineral was used in pipe insulation and fire-proofing products. Workers in building demolition and dry wall removal were frequently exposed to asbestos fibers. Persons employed in the shipbuilding industry and in the maritime trades also had a high risk of exposure because asbestos was used to insulate boilers and steam pipes. A third category was auto mechanics who removed brake linings; asbestos was used to make brake pads because of its high resistance to heat.
As the health risks posed by exposure to asbestos became well-known in the 1970s, both states and the federal government enacted laws and regulations banning the use of asbestos and requiring manufacturers of asbestos products to warn of the material’s health hazards. Also, employers are now required to provide protective gear, such as inhalation masks and hazardous material suits for employees who are required to work in proximity to products manufactured with asbestos. These methods have greatly reduced the risk of asbestos exposure, but asbestos is still present in the environment, and the risk has not yet been eliminated.
Source: National Cancer Institute Fact Sheet, “Asbestos Exposure and Cancer Risk”