Lingering asbestos persists as a threat to homeowners, construction workers, and even agricultural workers. However, in industrial settings, newly manufactured materials and products may also contain asbestos, as the U.S. limit is at one percent.
Global Asbestos Awareness Week (GAAW) is April 1-April 7, and highlights the asbestos hazards construction and industrial workers face. As this week confronts the ongoing issues with asbestos, especially in the workplace, employees in these environments should understand how this week affects them and what it means in regards to their health and safety.
There are multiple uses for asbestos in construction trades. As a result, the CDC estimated that construction workers accounted for 70-80% of all asbestos exposure in the 1900s, making this industry among the most affected. Insulators, plumbers, electricians, welders, and machine operators may have handled asbestos in some form, due to the versatility of this fiber as both fireproof and fire resistant. Common building materials and products that contained asbestos was seen as a beneficial additive at the time, until it was identified as a carcinogen and restrictions came out in the 1970s.
Employees are part of this worldwide cooperation to focus on occupational health and safety. As the U.S. is one of the few remaining countries who have not put a national asbestos ban in place, that eliminates any production of asbestos, employees are still at risk.
Outbreaks of asbestos continue to remain an issue. Last year, during GAAW, the shock of discovering that over 10 Philadelphia school buildings tested positive for millions of asbestos fibers in frequently traveled areas was disclosed after an independent investigation. Throughout this incident, a local teacher was diagnosed with mesothelioma after years of classroom exposure.
Although schools aren’t considered construction or industrial, the call of attention to all professions is vital, because contact with this carcinogen is possible. OSHA has enforced regulations to ensure that workers are not accidentally exposed to asbestos and that hazards are well-mitigated. However, the CDC reported that in 2012 the number of new cancer cases caused by occupational toxins approximated between 45,872 and 91,745.
Asbestos fibers embed in the linings of organs, but it usually takes years to develop lung cancer. Workers exposed to asbestos in the 1970s and 1980s can be diagnosed and experiencing symptoms now. The push for GAAW is partly due to the aggressive nature of mesothelioma; patients often have 1-2 years of life expectancy after a diagnosis. This is also why many patients are granted settlements from the companies or workplaces who exposed them. After the Philadelphia school asbestos incident, the Philadelphia Board of Education approved $850,000 to the teacher who developed cancer and had to resign as a result.
While countries like Turkey, Australia, the United Kingdom, and most countries in Europe have banned asbestos, the U.S. is waiting on federal and state governments to enact the same legislation. Many of these regulations have included asbestos restrictions as part of a more comprehensive act that also manages air, water, and toxins such as the Clean Air Act and the James Zadroga 9/11 Health & Compensation Act and Reauthorization Act.
Transparency is one of the main purposes of these regulations. Exposure can happen today, even with evidence that asbestos is deadly and that there are safer alternatives. This is why advocacy for stricter laws is ongoing. The Further Asbestos Claim Transparency Act and the Reducing Exposure to Asbestos Database Act are two proposed pieces of legislation that could change asbestos legislation and potentially lead to an overall ban. States have also taken action to limit use in the meantime. For workers, the risks of exposure to asbestos are higher and Global Asbestos Awareness Week, a worldwide observance, includes advocacy for this population as a significant goal.