Asbestos was first used because it was fire resistant, but it was soon discovered that exposure to asbestos can cause damage to the lungs.
While asbestos was first introduced to protect those handling heat and fire, it was soon discovered that exposure to asbestos can cause damage to the lungs and can lead to diseases like mesothelioma.
What is Asbestos?
Asbestos is a group of minerals found in rocks. They don’t corrode easily and during the 20th century became a popular material used in housing, construction, pipe insulation, building materials, and machinery. Asbestos is resistant to heat, fire, and highly durable, and is naturally occurring.
Types of Asbestos
There are two general classes of asbestos (and six types) included in the legal definition.
- Serpentine class
- Chrysotile (white asbestos)
- Amphibole class
- Amosite (brown asbestos)
- Crocidolite (blue asbestos)
Amphiboles carry a greater risk of developing these diseases since this class of asbestos remains in the lungs for a longer period of time.
Building Materials Containing Asbestos
It is important to understand just how prevalent asbestos is in our buildings.
Prior to 1980, many of the following materials contained asbestos:
- Floor and ceiling tiles
- Plaster and caulk
- Heat-resistant building materials
- Clutch pads and brake linings in cars
- Pipe wrapping
Asbestos exposure bears a greater risk when these materials are destroyed or disturbed (during a renovation, for example). There are many asbestos removal services that home and building owners choose to employ to mitigate risk down the line.
Exposure to asbestos has occurred in many industries and places throughout history. Asbestos exposure is common in old schools and apartment buildings, in shipping, asbestos removal (due to demolition, renovation, etc), manufacturing, and automotive repair work. One of the most prevalent places you may be exposed to asbestos is the chemical plant.
What is a Chemical Plant?
A chemical plant handles chemical and sometimes hazardous materials. Chemical plants have been a large part of the US economy over the past century, and have employed hundreds of thousands of Americans each year.
Chemical plants are important to the US economy, but there are also many risks associated with being a chemical plant worker. Some of these dangers are more obvious—a chemical plant employee may be at risk for burns, eye damage, and falls. These occupational hazards are all very real, and employees should be careful to not have any accidents while on the job.
The presence of asbestos is another risk many chemical plant employees may face. Rather than something like a burn or fall which is usually an accident, exposure to asbestos can be much more difficult to avoid.
Since asbestos is microscopic, chemical plant workers must rely on their employers and national regulations to be protected against asbestos.
Presence of Asbestos in Chemical Plants
Although we now know that asbestos can cause harm to those exposed, it was first introduced into chemical plants to protect workers. Asbestos can handle high-heat, fire, and chemical reactions while also being durable—this made it attractive to use in chemical plants.
Between the 1940s and 1970s, asbestos exposure at chemical plants was at an all-time high due to a lack of regulations and precautions. Because of its ability to handle heat, it became the preferred material of many plant owners not only to use in building materials but also in workbenches, tanks, ovens, and even in the protective clothing employees were wearing.
Doctors began to discuss the risks of asbestos exposure leading to cancer in the 1930s but because of its low cost and high efficacy as an insulation and heat protectant material, this advice went ignored by many chemical plant owners for decades.
A 1979 study by Lilis et al. showed 24% of chemical plant workers had some sort of asbestos damage in their lungs. Studies show that, on average, the effects of asbestos exposure can take 20-50 years to fully settle and manifest. This means that we may still see folks coming down with diseases related to their work in chemical plants, even if the initial exposure has been mitigated for decades.
While most construction materials stopped using asbestos in the US in the 1980s, the mineral may still be found in chemical plants across the country.
Even though the risk of getting mesothelioma or other asbestos-related diseases is lower now because of these regulations, it is unfortunately still possible for chemical plant workers to come into contact with asbestos on the job.
Chemical Plants Known for their Asbestos Use
Asbestos was clearly a very prominent material used in chemical plants throughout the US. Throughout the past decade, nine chemical plants have become especially known for their asbestos use, and for the cases brought against them by former chemical plant workers.
Stauffer Chemical Plant
A chemical plant in Florida, Stauffer Chemical operated between 1947-1981. Over 500,000 tons of asbestos was deposited during the plant’s tenure. Asbestos was also used in a great deal of the machinery the plant used which not only impacted the health of employees but that of many who lived in the surrounding area.
In the 1990s, a class-action lawsuit was brought against Dow Chemical for the utilization of asbestos in their plant. Over 8000s defendants were a part of the suit that stated that Dow Chemical used asbestos not only in insulating their machinery but also in the protective clothing employees were made to wear. The most notable lawsuit win was the 9 million dollars awarded to the family of a former Dow employee, now deceased.
Georgia-Pacific Resin’s factory was riddled with asbestos between the late 1930s-1970s. Asbestos could be found in the walls, floors, ceilings, building insulation, and many of the machines employees were expected to use daily. Since the late 1970s, over 200,000 lawsuits have been brought against Georgia-Pacific.
Asbestos has been found in the machinery and clothing that workers at the chemical plant had to operate and wear. Lawsuits against the chemical plant began to be brought to court starting in the late 1990s, and a lawsuit in 2010 exposed the fact that Dupont representatives understood the risks involved with using asbestos in their plants.
Chevron Phillips is an example of another chemical plant whose use of asbestos not only impacted employees but also the surrounding community. While asbestos was used most between the 1940s-1970s in extremely high amounts a large amount of damage came from an explosion in 1989 that spread debris (which included asbestos) across the surrounding area. The effects of this explosion were far-reaching and impacted the entire community.
Not only was asbestos used throughout the Thompson-Hayward’s chemical plant, but they are also known for distributing the mineral and operating a plant where asbestos was manufactured. This exposed the workers in that plant to high levels of asbestos exposure but also the greater community to it as well.
Other Chemical Plants Known for Asbestos Use
While the above demonstrate the chemical plants with the most egregious uses of asbestos, there are a few other names worth knowing.
- Union Carbide
- Borden Chemical
Chemical plant workers risk exposure when the material breaks down due to use or time. In most of the cases above, because of the machinery and clothing used daily, it was much more likely the asbestos continued to break down, leading to more exposure for the plant workers.
Asbestos and Chemical Plant Workers
Employees at chemical plants across all levels are at risk of exposure to asbestos, which could lead to mesothelioma, lung cancer, or other asbestos-related illnesses. Even if an employee isn’t directly handling asbestos, they still risk exposure without the proper protocols in place.
These asbestos particles, when released in the air, can be breathed in by an employee. These particles can cause micro-tears to the lungs, and after enough damage and exposure can lead to mesothelioma or lung cancer, two diseases that can be fatal.
Lung Cancer and Mesothelioma
The two main diseases that asbestos exposure can lead to are lung cancer and mesothelioma. Both occur when someone is working in an area where asbestos fibers exist in the air and these are breathed in. These fibers get trapped in the lungs and are invisible to the naked eye, which makes this especially dangerous.
Over time, these fibers cause tears to the lungs. Lung cancer occurs when these tears cause damage to the lungs and lung tissue. Mesothelioma affects the lungs but refers to tears and damage that occurs to the membrane that surrounds a person’s lungs.
Who is at Risk for Asbestos Exposure?
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics identifies a group of chemical plant workers as potentially being at-risk for asbestos exposure.
- Chemical equipment operators
- Machinery operators and tenders
- Chemical technicians
- Gas workers
- Laboratory technicians
- Quality assurance team members
- Maintenance and janitorial staff
These chemical plant employees can be at a high risk of asbestos exposure when the proper protocols are not put in place, but it’s important to note that this negligence can also affect employees’ families or others they come into close contact with.
Much like secondhand smoke, exposure to asbestos does not have to be direct in order for it to have adverse effects. Precautions need to be taken and regulations followed in order to keep employees and their families safe.
Asbestos Standards in the Workplace
Because of the pervasiveness of asbestos in chemical plants and the dangers it can cause to employees, agencies like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR, under the CDC) have created regulations, laws, and best practices around how to protect employees and their families against asbestos in the workplace.
OSHA’s standards for asbestos exposure in the workplace are the most commonly followed. These standards aim to protect employees and hold employers accountable for any potential exposure. Since asbestos is a group of carcinogens, it doesn’t take much exposure for an adverse impact to occur.
Here’s what OSHA’s standards protect against:
- Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL): This standard ensures that asbestos levels are kept below a measurable limit. An employer is responsible for ensuring the asbestos levels in the air do not go above what is permissible by these standards.
- Workplace Assessment: this refers to the fact that workplaces must be assessed for asbestos exposure, to ensure proper PELs are maintained.
- Oversight and monitoring: Employers must understand what level of monitoring is sufficient to accurately measure PEL in their workplaces.
- Length of records: This states that all measures and assessments of asbestos exposure must be kept for a minimum of 30 years. This standard also protects employee medical records, which must be kept as long as a worker is employed with the company plus an additional 30 years.
The air within a chemical plant now needs to be tested for asbestos exposure, and cannot exceed the limit designated in these regulations. Chemical plant workers must wear appropriate respiratory gear provided by their employer.
In the case of an exposure in tested air being higher than the legal limit, these regulations state that the employer must provide safe conditions for their employees while the risk is being mitigated. If an abnormal exposure occurs, employers must also monitor the health of their employees, setting controls and limits on certain practices at work, and working to eliminate the levels of asbestos in the air.
Negligence and Lawsuits Related to Asbestos Exposure
Unfortunately, these guidelines can be expensive or cumbersome to follow, and it’s been proven that chemical plant owners have ignored guidelines in the past. There have been numerous lawsuits brought against some of the biggest chemical plants in cases where an employee gets sick from mesothelioma or other asbestos-related illnesses on the job.
OSHA’s Guide to Workers’ Rights
OSHA outlines the following as basic rights all employees should be guaranteed in their place of work. It is the responsibility of the employer to ensure these things are in place.
- Working conditions should not cause any risk of harm to the employee.
- Obtain a list of possible hazards that may occur on the job, as well as training in order to help mitigate against these hazards. Training requirements have been put forward by the EPA.
- Receive a list of any and all work-related injuries or illnesses that have occurred
- Have access to tests that occur in the workplace, including the measure of airborne asbestos in their place of work.
- Ask OSHA to investigate safety measures at their workplace by filing a complaint, and have their identity protected.
- Be able to exercise these rights without fear of termination, retaliation, or other unfair treatment.
If one or more of these rights has been violated, there may be a current case to be made against the employer.
What Can You do to Protect Yourself in the Workplace?
Asbestos exposure in the workplace is something to be taken very seriously. If you think you are at risk of exposure, make sure your employer is following the proper OSHA or NIOSH protocols and that you have the proper training and equipment to protect yourself. Understanding the risks of asbestos exposure from chemical plants will give you the tools needed to protect yourself.
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