Despite regulations, asbestos is still a real and present danger for construction workers. Though 42 percent of construction deaths involve falls, a surprising 17 percent are attributed to exposure to toxic materials like asbestos. In fact, approximately 100,000 workers are projected to die over the next ten years from diseases like mesothelioma and asbestosis, which are diseases exclusively caused by working around asbestos.
It is estimated that more than one million construction workers are exposed to asbestos-containing materials every year. Just last month, restoration of a hotel in Spokane, Wash. was put on hold when air quality inspectors found signs of asbestos and no evidence the developer hired a certified contractor to remove the toxic material, putting workers’ lives at risk.
What’s So Dangerous About Asbestos?
Though the use of asbestos products has drastically declined in recent decades, evidence of its excessive use still lies within the country’s infrastructure. Most structures built between 1920 and 1980 run a substantial risk of containing asbestos products, especially within floors, walls, roofs, tiles, insulation, pipes, boilers and fireproofing materials.
New builds may still increase the chances of developing an asbestos-related cancer, mainly because newly-manufactured products imported into the United States are allowed to contain one percent or less of asbestos. Though the mineral is no longer mined in the United States, asbestos products are still imported legally and by the tons. Even today, it can still be found in packing gaskets and roofing panels.
Asbestos products are typically harmless when left untouched and intact. The problem exists when contaminated structures are disturbed, either through deterioration over time or during any type of modification (basic maintenance, demolition or remodeling). Airborne asbestos fibers can be thousands of times thinner than a strand of hair, making them easy to inhale without noticing. These asbestos particles then become lodged in the lining of the lungs where mesothelioma cancer eventually develops.
Mesothelioma has an extremely long latency period, taking anywhere from 15 to 50 years to develop. Those who worked in construction toward the end of asbestos’ peak may just be discovering symptoms now. Those symptoms are similar to the flu or a respiratory infection, making an accurate diagnosis difficult to achieve. This cancer is aggressive, so once mesothelioma has been determined, it is often in its advanced stages.
Though construction workers face contamination risks at work, their loved ones face the same issues at home. Many children and spouses of construction workers have been diagnosed with mesothelioma years after their loved one retired, mostly because of contaminated work clothes they brought home. It is vital for those currently in the industry to understand the risks of asbestos, how to identify it, how to remove it, and how to protect themselves and their families from unnecessary exposure.
Employee Protection and Injury Prevention
No amount of asbestos is considered safe, especially for those with high-risk occupations. There are regulations in place to help protect workers through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), but many argue that these protection laws are not enough.
The best way to prevent an asbestos-related disease while on the job is to know what to look for and where to look for it. Ensure project managers are aware of asbestos levels in the air before starting a project. If asbestos is detected, do not start the job until it is properly removed or until adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) is provided.
The first week of May was Occupational Safety and Health Week and asbestos in construction is a frequent health and safety topic. Construction workers should be aware of their surroundings and seek adequate protection at all times, and voice any and all safety concerns while working in order to best protect themselves and their organizations.
Viewpoint supports the mission of the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance. To learn more about and stay aware of mesothelioma issues, visit www.mesothelioma.com.
As the Community Outreach Director for the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance, Emily Walsh dedicates her time to building cancer awareness through social media and blogging.