Asbestos and Mesothelioma: OSHA Standards Target the Risks

Workplace illnesses resulting from lung exposure to asbestos pose many challenging legal issues because the afflicted individual may not become aware of the condition for decades. The foremost risk of inhalation of asbestos fibers is a form of cancer called mesothelioma, and the condition has affected tens of thousands of construction workers, electricians, mechanics and other Americans in industrial and maintenance jobs.

Employers must understand the great risks to workers if on-site asbestos is not properly handled. The Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) provides training materials to advise employers and workers about federal standards to prevent asbestos exposure in the workplace. The following are common situations where exposure to asbestos can be a problem:

  • Demolition of buildings, including materials salvage operations
  • Removal or encapsulation of materials that contain asbestos
  • Renovation-related activities, including construction, repair, and maintenance of existing facilities
  • Installation of building products or replacement of machine parts that contain asbestos
  • Emergency clean-up of spills or debris
  • Potential worker exposure during transportation, storage, disposal or containment of asbestos on construction sites

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that was commonly used in motor vehicle parts and a variety of building materials due to its ability to resist corrosion and high heat levels. The tiny fibers that can be released when asbestos is removed or installed create a serious health hazard for workers who suffer repeated exposure to airborne particles. In addition to mesothelioma, exposed workers can contract lung cancer or asbestosis, a build-up of scar tissue in the lungs.

Whether performing vehicle clutch and brake repairs, removing insulation materials, or working closely with asbestos under other circumstances, workers must be equipped with respiratory protection and protective clothing and advised of proper handling procedures. OSHA mandates that employers follow established standards and ensure that they are always followed. One fundamental aspect of asbestos hazard reduction is constant monitoring of airborne asbestos levels to ensure that legal workers exposure limits are not exceeded.

Holding Employers to Strict Federal Asbestos Standards

Specific OSHA standards apply to three separate types of workplaces: construction sites, shipyards and general industrial sites. The final category includes such occupations as auto mechanics, factory workers, plumbers and pipe fitters, and boiler mechanics. Workers who are exposed beyond permissible exposure limits (PELs) must be provided with medical examinations, and employers must maintain records of measurements taken to monitor asbestos exposure, as well as an employee's medical history and training records.

Employers must also use labels to warn workers of products, containers and installed construction materials that contain asbestos. The point is to provide continuous caution to employees that asbestos is a cancer and lung disease hazard that should be handled only by authorized personnel using approved respirators and protective gear.

Arresting the Spread of a Devastating and Preventable Occupational Disease

The reason for such strong preventative measures is that mesothelioma is such a serious disease. According to the National Institute of Health, a worker who inhales asbestos particles might not show symptoms of mesothelioma for as long as 50 years from the time of exposure. While malignant mesothelioma can sometimes be treated with combinations of chemotherapy, radiation and surgery, it remains a very deadly form of cancer.

Although health professionals define mesothelioma as a "rare" form of cancer, an average of 3,000 new cases are diagnosed every year, and OSHA estimates that 1.3 million American workers work in situations that potentially expose them to asbestos hazards. However, exposure risks peaked in the early 1970s, when industrial use of asbestos was at its highest. (Asbestos is no longer mined in the U.S., but we still import thousands of tons for use in construction materials and transportation products.)

Individuals who worked in an asbestos-related industry and experience symptoms such as shortness of breath, rib-cage pain, persistent coughing, anemia and problems with blood clotting should immediately seek out appropriate medical attention. Mesothelioma can be diagnosed using lung X-rays, blood tests, CT scans, MRIs, biopsies and other medical tests. While early detection is difficult due to the slow development of the disease, it can make a considerable difference in patient outcomes.

Strict occupational safety standards to protect workers from asbestos inhalation came far too late for many American workers currently afflicted with mesothelioma. In some cases, airborne asbestos fibers were a hazard that workers brought home to their families on work clothes or in the family car. As complex as the factors behind such exposure may be, a mesothelioma litigation attorney can help individuals assess their legal options for holding a negligent employer accountable for the harm caused by its operations.