Occupational hazards are broadly defined as “a risk accepted as a consequence of a specific profession,” and in many instances, the construction and industrial sectors top the list of dangerous professions. While strides have been made in the realm of worker safety over the past several decades, many underlying risks still remain prevalent in the workplace. According to OSHA, one in five deaths on the job in 2016 happened in the construction sector, with falls being the primary culprit. Other mishaps, including electrical mistakes and vehicular accidents, make up the majority of remaining dangerous workplace incidents. However, the threat of respiratory illness due to asbestos exposure is still a very legitimate concern throughout the industry, which can cause severe health issues.

Why Asbestos?

If you ask a construction worker what asbestos is, they will probably tell you that it’s a hazardous substance they encounter regularly. They will be able to tell you where it was used, where it can be found, and even what the mineral looks like. Most importantly, a construction worker will be aware that there are fines and penalties for improper handling, abatement, and disposal. But the question is this - should the average construction worker know more about the dangers associated with asbestos exposure? There are extensive publications about the hazards, including OSHA standards for proper asbestos protocol and Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA), but are the industry’s workers familiar with the aforementioned protocol?

It is important to know the history of asbestos in the modern era to understand the issue at hand. The industrialization of the United States, particularly throughout the 20th Century, gave way to unparalleled growth and development throughout the nation. Asbestos, a naturally-occurring silicate mineral, was used extensively during this time period as a fortification measure in everything from tile to insulation, electrical applications, and roofing. Noted for its immense strength, durability, and natural fire-retardant properties, the substance was heralded as a wonder mineral. Asbestos helped forge city skylines on the American horizon, but eventually, cost of the lives of many builders. Although the mineral has long fallen from grace, it can still be found in homes and dwellings built before 1980. Currently, asbestos is not banned in the United States.

A Grave Condition

A trend began to occur throughout the 20th Century; sturdy men with a lifetime of industry experience began exhibiting signs of alarming illness. Their symptoms included chest pain, incessant coughing, and fluid buildup in the lungs - a condition called pleural effusion. These men had spent their entire working lives in construction, only to receive a diagnosis of mesothelioma, a rare disease first recognized in the 1960s. As it stands today, the only known cause of mesothelioma is exposure to asbestos. In almost every type of construction, whether it be remodeling, demolition, roofing, or flooring, a laborer can come into contact with dilapidated building material. As asbestos-containing materials age, they become susceptible to fragmentation, which can release deadly asbestos fibers into the air. Once inhaled, these fragments can become permanently lodged in the body.

Mesothelioma is characterized by a substantial latency period, which can be anywhere from 10-50 years after initial exposure. Due to the rarity of the cancer and the commonality of the symptoms, mesothelioma is often misdiagnosed, as chest pain, chronic cough, and fluid buildup can be attributed to several different illnesses. Once a specialist has diagnosed the condition patients face an extremely imposing prognosis - most cases of mesothelioma are diagnosed in late stages of the cancer. The average lifespan of a patient is 12-21 months after diagnosis. Treatment options vary greatly on the progression of the cancer, but patients can generally expect a regimen of chemotherapy, radiation, and sometimes surgical removal of affected tissues. There is currently no cure for mesothelioma.

What Can the Industry Do?

Due to how extensively asbestos was used, it is very likely a construction worker will come across the substance on a fairly regular basis. The best way for workers, especially in the private sector, to ensure safety is to educate their organization. When workers know the threat, as well as compliance policies, they will be more apt to follow the proper protocol and stay safe. Furthermore, usage of PPE devices and appropriately calibrated respirators is imperative when competently dealing with asbestos abatement and disposal. When education is paramount, the effects will manifest and safeguard the health of workers, as well as provide an environment where the job can be completed efficiently.

For more information about asbestos, visit the Mesothelioma + Asbestos Awareness Center (MAA) at www.maacenter.org.