The Occupational Safety & Health Administration website defines asbestos as being "naturally occurring minerals that are resistant to heat and corrosion." Given the durability of asbestos, it has been widely used in a number of building materials as well as floor tiles and brake pads. Upon the discovery that exposure to asbestos materials poses multiple adverse health risks, strict safety policies and regulations were put in place to protect workers and members of the public. However, for many workers and their family members, such safety policies came too late.
A jury recently awarded a 40-year-old man and his 37-year-old wife a $27.5 million settlement related to a lawsuit the couple filed against a brake pad manufacturer. In 2012, the now 40-year-old husband and father was diagnosed with mesothelioma. Prior to the start of the trial, the man underwent four life-threatening surgeries which ultimately resulted in the removal of his right lung. The cancer, however, is expected to also affect his left lung.
In 2006, a long-term employee of the Crown-Zellerbach paper mill in Washington state was diagnosed with pleural malignant epithelial mesothelioma. As our readers are aware, mesothelioma is a rare but deadly cancer known to be caused by exposure to airborne asbestos particles. This man, now deceased, said he had regularly worked around asbestos-containing dryer felts over the course of his career from 1968 to 2001. He was even allowed to bring the dryer felts home to use as gardening underlayment.
While the following story did not occur here in Illinois, it is indicative of what could happen anywhere in the country. A high school gym in Hartford is undergoing a renovation project and, while the project was underway, it was discovered that the gym had asbestos in it. The gym was quickly shut down and will not be reopened until the asbestos is removed. According to officials, there was no risk to the health of students as a result of the asbestos.
As we discussed last month, the devastating effects of asbestos exposure on Americans was in no way limited to people who worked for the companies producing it or in high-risk occupations. All too often, asbestos was spread around the environment in the form of cheap, recycled materials used for ground fill and paving projects. Others who never worked directly with asbestos were exposed through dust brought home on the clothing of family members who did -- and that exposure was often enough to cause mesothelioma and asbestos lung cancer.
Here in Illinois and in most states, virtually all workplace injuries and occupational diseases are handled through the workers’ compensation system, which has special rules. Workers who develop job-related illnesses or injuries are covered by workers’ comp regardless of whether their employers were negligent. Balancing that is the “exclusivity rule,” which means these cases must be handled through workers’ comp; workers can’t sue for negligence.
When people think of asbestos victims, they often assume they worked for years in industries where asbestos-laden products were commonly used. It is true that certain industries exposed workers to asbestos more than others -- railroad and shipyard workers, welders, plumbers, pipe fitters, boiler mechanics and construction workers, for example. Any occupation where workers would be installing, wearing or working around insulation or insulated products turned out to be high-risk. The reason asbestos was once so popular was its remarkable insulating properties.
The fact that microscopic asbestos fibers caused mesothelioma and asbestos-lung cancer may have come as a shock generations ago, but scientists and safety regulators have known for decades that other airborne particulates carry the same risk. With substantial profits to be gained through the use of these products, however, there continues to be resistance to regulation -- or even to appropriate safety measures being taken.
As we discussed on this blog earlier this month, a 69-year-old carpenter from Kansas filed a lawsuit in 2012 against dozens of companies who manufactured, distributed or sold asbestos-containing products used for drywall work. He is dying from a combination of diabetes, heart disease and mesothelioma. The only defendant still contesting its responsibility is Georgia Pacific, which the plaintiff says manufactured the drywall-joint sealing compounds he typically used.