For decades, asbestos was used in electrical equipment and metal piping as insulation because it is heat- and fire-resistant, making it a seemingly perfect combination for isolating an electrical current. The mineral was a popular ingredient in building materials, insulation, and vehicle brake pads. It’s now well known that asbestos is carcinogenic to humans and can lead to a variety of asbestos-related diseases, including lung cancer, asbestosis and the rare, and often fatal, mesothelioma.

September 26 is Mesothelioma Awareness Day, which makes this month a good time to reflect on the risk factors associated with this disease and how to avoid them. It is true that asbestos may not be an immediate danger to those at home or on the job if the mineral remains intact within an asbestos-containing material (ACM), but it is still important to be aware of the potential dangers that could appear if asbestos is disturbed.

The uses and applications of asbestos make it a mostly occupational threat to a variety of workers who may come across it unexpectedly. Not all ACMs are maintained properly, so it is crucial for different types of workers to know about the dangers asbestos presents and the potential illnesses that may result from exposure. 

Why Should Industrial Workers be Concerned About Asbestos Exposure?

Due to its prevalence in industrial materials and manufacturing during the 20th century, asbestos can be a very real danger to those who work in factories and plants with raw materials. These workers could be welders, machinists, metal workers, mechanics, and electricians. Asbestos was used in a variety of ways and places, including:

  • Circuit breakers
  • Wires and cables
  • Insulation
  • Valves
  • Pumps
  • Boilers

Workers who grind down, cut, drill, and scrape metal materials should be aware of the potential for exposure to asbestos or other toxic dusts. Power plant workers who work on valves and gaskets that contain asbestos may also be at risk. Industrial workplaces are often associated with high heat and chemical use, making asbestos a popular product due to the fire and chemical resistant properties. Asbestos can also be found in power plants and factory buildings themselves to insulate and protect the building in case of a fire. Understanding what products may contain asbestos can help workers and supervisors take the necessary precautions to avoid exposure.

Did you know? More than half of mesothelioma cases can be attributed to workplace exposure.

While many uses have since been regulated or banned by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), there is not a complete ban on asbestos use in the U.S. This means that those who work in these industrial environments today might still be at risk of asbestos exposure if they are unaware of the threats. Beginning in June 2018, the EPA introduced the Significant New Use Rule (SNUR), which claimed to close loopholes on asbestos, while still allowing old and new uses to be introduced as long as the EPA approves them first.

This new rule is something industrial workers should be aware of, as multiple electrical-related uses are specified categories in the SNUR. Several product categories specifically reference how asbestos was used in the manufacturing of products and materials related to industrial work:

  1. Arc Chutes: Motor starter units and electric generating plants used asbestos-containing ceramic arc chutes to guide electric arcs.
  2. High-Grade Electrical Paper: Motors, generators, transformers, switchgears, and other heavy electrical apparatuses that relied on high temperature, low voltage applications used asbestos electrical paper as insulation.
  3. Millboard: Millboard refers to a thin, strong, cardboard-like material that was used for applications like insulation, fireproofing, and resistance against corrosion. For the electrical industry specifically, asbestos-containing millboard provided thermal protection in circuit breakers.
  4. Pipeline Wrap: Asbestos-containing felt was used by the oil and gas industry to coat pipelines, cooling towers and steam pipes.
  5. Reinforced Plastics: Asbestos was used to reinforce plastics for electro-mechanical parts.
  6. Adhesives and Sealants: Commonly used in the automotive industry, asbestos was used widely in adhesives, sealants, and coatings. 

While the EPA has stated that these manufacturing practices do not use asbestos in production anymore, the SNUR could make it possible for these processes to be utilized once again. The fact that there is an ongoing discontinuation of these manufacturing processes does not mean these products and materials have ceased to pose a risk to industrial workers today. These historical uses continue to present occupational threats, but spreading knowledge and understanding can help employers mitigate these potential risks.

Protecting Employees from Airborne Dangers 

There are steps that employers and managers can take to ensure the safety of their workers on a daily basis. Training workers to be aware of what asbestos looks like and where they may come into contact with the carcinogen is an important first step for teams to take. Ensuring that employees are wearing the appropriate equipment, such as respirators and masks, and that workspaces are properly ventilated could prevent the inhalation of toxic debris. If asbestos is found or known to be in the area, only abatement professionals should attempt to remove or seal an asbestos-containing material. 

Posting signs and instructions in an area where asbestos was found may seem simple, but it’s a step that could prevent accidental exposure since asbestos fibers can be microscopic. Employers should also encourage employees in high-risk scenarios to see a doctor regularly and to stay up to date on cancer screenings.

Asbestos fibers are not an immediate danger until disturbed or broken, but the carcinogen poses significant health risks when toxic dust is released. Though there are regulations in place that attempt to protect workers now, more than half of mesothelioma cases can be attributed to workplace exposure. This is why it is vital to know and understand the risk factors associated with asbestos exposure and where you might come into contact with the substance on the job.