Merchant Marine Seamen
Merchant marine seamen have played a vital role in naval operations for decades, providing supplies and support during wartime. While they are considered civilians during times of peace, they are active military personnel in times of war. In World War II alone, one merchant seaman died for every 24 who served. Approximately 200 billion pounds of merchant cargo, material, and ships were also lost. The Merchant Marine provided critical support during the Korean, Vietnam, and Gulf Wars. Just as there are several different roles that merchant marine seamen serve, there are several different ways they suffered exposure to asbestos. Whether serving as captains, masters, department heads, cooks, pilots, engineers, or others, seamen were exposed to this deadly material. Asbestos was widely used on not only the construction of ships but in many of the different components used in a wide variety of vessels. Tankers, freighters, and cargo ships were just some of the kinds of ships with components that contained asbestos, including:
- Packing materials used in pipes, machinery, valves, and more
- Insulation on boilers
- Insulation used to steam pipes
When wrapping material aged, it became brittle and allowed asbestos fibers to be released into the air. These microscopic fibers can remain airborne for days and be easily inhaled by an unknowing merchant marine seaman. According to a study in the Journal of Industrial Medicine, Mount Sinai School of Medicine researchers performed an analysis of chest x-rays of approximately 3,300 merchant marine seamen. More than 1,000 of those x-rays showed abnormalities in the lining of the lungs — the area where mesothelioma develops. At particular risk are merchant marine seamen who worked in engine rooms. However, all merchant marine seamen were at risk of asbestos exposure. There were several other seamen who were exposed while helping to build or retrofit vessels. Whether you helped install, repair or operate engines, pipes, pumps, boilers, generators or boilers, there is a very good chance you suffered asbestos exposure during your service.
Millwrights are skilled construction mechanics who install, repair, dismantle and move large industrial machinery and equipment at factories, power plants and construction sites. Their name derives from the days before modern metal machinery, a time when millwrights were master craftsmen who designed and constructed watermills and windmills. Modern millwrights have wide-ranging knowledge of many different types of equipment, from conveyor and hydraulic systems to wind turbines and generators. They use their understanding of mechanical systems and schematics in combination with hand tools and measuring tools to keep the machines of industry in precise working order. The hands-on work performed by millwrights in construction and industrial settings may have exposed them to asbestos, a mineral fiber that causes cancer and chronic disease. Research has, in fact, shown that millwrights are some of the highest at-risk workers for asbestos exposure. The tendency of millwrights’ to work on heat-generating industrial equipment explains why they regularly came into contact with asbestos fibers through the 1970s. Prior to 1980, asbestos-containing insulation materials were widely used on equipment such as boilers, generators, turbines, pipes, gaskets and valve packing. Using metal grinders, saws and drills on asbestos-coated equipment and its components would have released microscopic asbestos fibers into the air that were breathed in by millwrights. The disturbance of asbestos materials also would have occurred during maintenance and disassembly activities. Not only were millwrights exposed at work, their spouses and children suffered secondhand exposure at home because fibers can be carried home on a worker’s body and clothing. In addition, millwrights who work in older buildings with pre-1970s machines, equipment and building materials remain at risk of asbestos exposure. Asbestos exposure is associated with a number of diseases. The most serious are mesothelioma, lung cancer, and the chronic lung disease asbestosis. According to a study conducted by researchers at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine at City University of New York, nearly half of the 110 millwrights and machinery erectors analyzed showed chest abnormalities consistent with exposure to asbestos, including thickening of the lung lining (or pleura) and lung disease. In a different study of asbestos related malignancies among construction and trade workers at Department of Energy nuclear sites, nearly 33% of millwrights had chest x-ray abnormalities and 47% had pulmonary function test result abnormalities. If you ever worked as a millwright and have been displaying signs of mesothelioma or another asbestos-related disease, schedule an appointment with your doctor right away. And if you’re already been diagnosed with mesothelioma, you may wish to consult with a specialist in your area.
Navy Yard Workers
Naval yard workers are at risk of developing certain kinds of respiratory-related diseases such as mesothelioma, asbestosis or long cancer from exposure to asbestos, commonly used inside U.S. Navy ships. Civilian shipyard workers, known as yardbirds, were also exposed to large doses of asbestos when building Navy ships and when repairing Navy ships. Because asbestos-related diseases are slow to strike, many Navy yard workers and yardbirds may only recently have been diagnosed with mesothelioma from exposure to asbestos decades ago.
Painters not only apply finish coats of paint to surfaces, they also perform extensive prep work on surfaces to be painted. Cleaning, scraping, sanding and applying caulk, spackling, joint compound and primer are all in a day’s work for painters. Unfortunately for some painters, this work may expose them to asbestos, a carcinogenic mineral fiber used in a wide variety of building construction materials through the 1970s. In the past asbestos was used as a paint thickener, filler and fire retardant. It was also added to the following materials used and handled by painters prior to the 1980s:
- Joint compounds
- Decorative plaster
- Textured paints and coatings
- Caulking, putty and spackling
Painters who worked directly with such materials in years past aren’t the only ones at risk of asbestos exposure. Asbestos still exists in older buildings, and work in buildings undergoing construction and renovations can exposure painters to this day. They may also encounter asbestos while painting steam lines, boilers, and other equipment. Painters, furthermore, can bring home fibers on clothing, hair or shoes, exposing family members to asbestos and placing them at risk of asbestos-related disease.
Paper Mill Workers
Paper mill workers operate all aspects of a paper mill, including paper machines, pumps, valves, digesters, evaporators, and boilers. Many factories used paper mill equipment to make other products like tiles and boards. Paper mills are dusty, noisy places. Pulp and paper workers operate machinery that converts wood chips and plant fibers into paper and other products, including:
- Fiber board
- Paper board
- Ceiling tile
All of these processes are very hot. Asbestos was widely used in boilers, pumps, valves, and processing equipment. Paper workers also may have been exposed to asbestos if the manufacturing plant used asbestos in the production of products. Many paper mills used asbestos as an ingredient in their products. For example, a health screening of former workers at the Conwed plant in Cloquet, Minnesota, conducted by the Minnesota Department of Health showed that 27 percent of the paper workers and their spouses had health abnormalities consistent with asbestos exposure. The plant used asbestos as a raw material in production of ceiling tiles and fiber board from 1958 to the 1970s. Asbestos was used in building materials and paper mill machinery in mills built from the 1930s to 1980s. When these machines need to be repaired or maintained, asbestos fibers can be released into the air, endangering those in and around the plant.
Pipe coverers—also referred to as mechanical insulators, insulation mechanics, or simply as insulators—apply, replace and remove insulation materials used on piping, equipment and mechanical systems. This group of tradespeople works in residential, industrial and military settings. In the past, the work performed by pipe coverers exposed them to asbestos, a carcinogenic mineral fiber that causes several diseases, including the incurable cancer mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis. The development of asbestos-related diseases among insulation workers is well-documented in scientific literature. While modern insulation is made from materials that include cellulose, plastic, fiberglass and foam board, asbestos insulation was common prior to the mid-1970s, when its use was first regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Asbestos was so common as an insulating material through much of the 1900s, in fact, that insulators from this period were known as “asbestos workers”. In addition to applying asbestos insulation to pipes, pipe coverers also insulate other mechanical systems and system components such as ductwork, boilers, furnaces, evaporators, turbines, tanks, refrigeration units, pumps, and valves and other fittings. The handling of asbestos-containing materials during installation was certainly a source of asbestos exposure, especially when insulation had to be cut to size—an action that would have released asbestos fibers into the air. But perhaps the greatest risk of exposure came during the removal, repair or replacement of asbestos insulation, jobs that necessarily entailed disturbing the asbestos and/or dealing with asbestos in a friable state. Many pipe coverers served in the U.S. Navy and worked in shipyards, where they encountered asbestos on a daily basis. A 1971 study of 101 pipe coverers employed in a New England shipyard found that 63 percent had asbestosis, including 13 percent who had advanced cases. Other studies demonstrate the prevalence of asbestos exposure among pipefitters in non-military settings. One of the most famous occupational exposure studies followed 17,800 members of the International Association of Heat and Frost Insulators and Asbestos Workers (U.S. and Canada) over a ten year period, from 1967-1976. During that time, 2,221 workers died. The cause of 175 of those deaths was mesothelioma. By 1984, 356 workers had died of mesothelioma.
Pipefitters and Plumbers
The design, installation, maintenance and repair of pipe systems used to convey materials such as steam, air, water, chemicals, gas and sewage is performed by skilled tradespeople known as pipefitters. Pipefitters work in a variety of commercial settings, from businesses and factories to power plants and chemical treatment facilities, as well as for the military. In residential settings, pipefitters are more commonly called plumbers. Prior to the 1970s, asbestos was used for insulating pipes, in particular high-temperature pipes such as hot water and steam pipes. Some piping was actually made of asbestos. Asbestos pipes were also common in shipbuilding. In addition to the pipes themselves, the pumps and valves in piping systems commonly utilized asbestos gaskets and rope packing, as did the turbines, tanks and other equipment that tied in with piping systems. The flanges where pipes were connected used asbestos gaskets. Pipefitters and plumbers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, have a higher rate of injuries and illnesses than the national average. Occupational exposure to asbestos is one concern.
Plasterers finish the interior surfaces of homes and buildings with coats of plaster in order to strengthen, soundproof, insulate, fireproof and decorate them. They also apply cement plasters, stucco and other coatings to building exteriors. Other job duties include mixing the plastering compound, cleaning and prepping surfaces in advance of finishing coats, erecting scaffolding, installing guidewires, molding and installing ornamental plaster, spraying-on fireproofing and acoustical materials, applying joint compound and repairing damaged surfaces. The work done by plasterers may have exposed them to asbestos, a cancerous mineral fiber commonly used in building materials from the 1940s through the 1980s. Asbestos was once a common ingredient not only in plaster and decorative plaster (such as Artex and “popcorn” ceiling texture), but also in other building materials that plasterers would have come in contact with, including walls and wall treatments, patching and joint compounds, adhesives, textured paints, insulation and sealants. Asbestos containing materials (ACMs) are still present in some homes and buildings constructed prior to the 1980s, creating an ongoing exposure risk. According to a 2001 study published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, plasterers have elevated risk for lung diseases that include cancer and asbestosis. The greatest risk of asbestos exposure occurs when the fibers become airborne. This would have occurred when plasters added water to dry mix plasters and joint compounds prior to application. The sanding of asbestos-containing plaster and joint compound (three coats of each is the industry standard) would also have released asbestos dust and fibers into the air. Plasterers who applied asbestos-containing spray-on fireproof coatings to buildings were similarly subject to asbestos exposure. Fireproof insulation, when sprayed, created dust and fiber clouds that would have been breathed in by not just plasterers, but by all nearby workers. Wallboard (plasterboard and drywall) was itself made with asbestos through the 1970s, and when cut, sanded or otherwise disturbed by plasterers, it created airborne asbestos fibers. The disturbance of other asbestos-containing building materials—such as flooring tile, ceiling tile and insulation—was yet another source of possible asbestos exposure. The former widespread use of asbestos in construction materials—along with the fact that various tradespeople worked alongside each other with these materials on busy construction sites—means that workers routinely faced asbestos exposure from their own work and work materials as well as from the work and work materials of others. The risk of exposure even extended to workers’ families, who may have breathed or ingested asbestos fibers brought home on hair or clothing. And unfortunately, asbestos exposure remains a risk for any plasterer or other workers in pre-1980s buildings or residences where ACMs were used. As revealed by a study of asbestos-containing plasters at Yale University, routine maintenance activities such as setting screws and drilling holes in the plaster liberated fibers that could then be breathed in. Removing popcorn ceilings and other outdated decorative plasters, as well as disturbing any other ACM, is also potentially dangerous.
Sheet Metal Workers
Sheet metal processing dates back to the 1500s, but the profession was not firmly established until 1887, when the Sheet Metal Workers International Association was formed. Modern professionals work on several different types of metals in a variety of ways, including stretching, flanging, shearing, punching, pressing, spinning, and many more. Sheet metal workers primarily install, assemble, maintain, and repair HVAC systems, plumbing systems, precision industrial equipment, roofing, gutters, and siding. They are called upon to use a variety of skills and must typically undergo as many as 5 years of extensive vocational or on-the-job training. Many of the structures that used sheet metal contained asbestos, as did much of the equipment workers used to perform their jobs. The very nature of this type of work resulted in asbestos particles becoming airborne and inhaled. Sheet metal workers were typically in cramped, closed quarters with very little ventilation. Some of the products containing asbestos that sheet metal workers typically encountered on a regular basis include:
- Roofing materials
- Boiler coverings
Many of these workers remain at-risk due to renovations of old buildings. When asbestos fibers are disturbed and move through the air, they can easily be inhaled. The Sheet Metal Workers International Association conducted several studies from 1986 to 2004 that showed as many as 21 percent of sheet metal workers tested showed scarring of the lining of their lungs. Welders worked around a great deal of equipment that was made of asbestos or treated with the material. Welding rods, for example, were typically coated with a mixture that contained up to 15 percent asbestos. When those rods were heated, asbestos fibers were released into the air and inhaled. The welding process creates a great deal of dust and smoke. Once the welding was complete, workers would usually grind down any extraneous materials that would also release particles of dust into the air. Even the gear many welders wore, contained asbestos to protect them from fire. These included gloves that were made of asbestos as well as blankets to help ward off excessive heat. When these were worn, asbestos fibers were easily released into the air and inhaled. Welders could have had asbestos fibers on their clothing and shoes, or even in their hair, putting others at-risk of asbestos-related diseases. Many welders working on naval and other types of vessels may have contracted several diseases caused by asbestos exposure, including mesothelioma.
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