Asbestos is a group of six naturally occurring minerals resistant to heat and corrosion. It is one of the most widely recognizable health hazards and exposure to asbestos can result in temporary or permanent disability, cancer, or death. However, asbestos minerals have been used in for decades in commercial products, household products, fireproofing material, car brakes, and more. Due to the severity of associated hazards, the use of asbestos is highly regulated by OSHA and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Employees in the construction industry or in ship repair are at the highest risk for asbestos exposure. During renovation, repairs or demolition, workers are likely to be exposed to the asbestos fibers coming from the asbestos products (insulation, building materials, textiles, etc.) These needle-like fibers are so small they cannot be seen with the naked eye but when inhaled, can be fatal. When breathing in, these fibers travel deep into the bronchia before sticking to the lungs and building up. This causes inflammation and scarring of the airways, leading to chest pain and a chronic cough, also known as asbestosis. Asbestosis can result in the loss of lung function and in some cases, death.
Asbestos is also classified as a carcinogen, meaning it promotes the formation of cancer. When too many asbestos fibers accumulate in the pleural lining of the lungs, the condition may progress to mesothelioma, a cancer that covers the lining of many internal organs. It is estimated that 80% of mesothelioma cases are caused by exposure to asbestos
Safety for Asbestos Exposure
Workplaces handling or using asbestos-containing material must follow regulatory standards to keep their employees safe OSHA’s standard 1910.1001 covers asbestos in the general industry, standard 1915.1001 covers work in shipyards, and 29 CR 1926.1101 is the asbestos standard for the construction industry.
Employers must understand the Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL) for asbestos and actively monitor exposure levels. Clear, easy-to-read safety signs should be posted in hazardous areas alerting workers to possible exposure. Depending on the industry and the level of asbestos exposure, employers may also have to adhere to medical surveillance requirements.