Labor Unions and the Fight Against Asbestos Exposure

Labor unions are an essential component for advocating for safer workplace conditions in many industries with environments that were exposed to asbestos as no exception. 

Labor unions have made their voices heard in an attempt to push for legislation that protects current workers while providing compensation and treatment for those who have been harmed by the dangerous mineral during their careers.

History of Asbestos in the U.S.

Asbestos is a mineral that is known for its properties of insulation and fireproofing. It was highly sought after in the construction industry, as it was used in most construction materials in the 1950s and 1960s. 

Although the mineral is incredibly useful and effective, its dust and fibers are highly toxic and have caused numerous health problems for those who have come into close contact with it. 

When inhaled, the dust and fibers can make their way into the lungs and cause long term health problems. The body has a difficult time breaking down these fibers, which leads to diseases later in life including lung cancer, asbestosis, and mesothelioma. Mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer that impacts the mucus lining of the lungs and sometimes the heart.

Asbestos was used extensively, especially in industrial areas such as construction, mining, railroad and automobile production, and shipbuilding. It was incorporated into a variety of products used nationwide, including construction materials (cement, insulation, caulking) among many others. 

The amount and duration of asbestos exposure play a large factor in the likelihood of developing problematic symptoms and diseases later in life. There is no “safe” level of asbestos that you can inhale or ingest. Any amount of exposure is dangerous, but the prolonged exposure to workers of many trades has led to these serious health issues.

As members of labor unions began developing serious health conditions, labor unions started noticing a connection between inhalation of asbestos dust and fibers and their sick members and they began taking action to protect their members.

The Labor Unions Become Involved

Labor unions across many disciplines have rallied together to advocate for safety precautions when their members are likely to come into contact with asbestos. Since asbestos was so widely applied, it impacts the health of many trade workers across multiple disciplines. 

Some of these unions include: United Auto Workers, International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers, International Brotherhood of Electricians, International Association of Firefighters, United Mine Workers of America, and Utility Workers Union of America. All of these professions include a high risk of asbestos exposure.

Unions encourage their members to educate themselves on local legislation and politics in order to advocate for themselves and meaningful change when it comes to protections, legal implications, and mandated safety measures. They encourage their members to identify and support political candidates that support their needs and views. 

Labor unions are also known for working with attorneys who specialize in personal injury brought on by exposure to asbestos in the workplace. Unions began uncovering evidence that showed that some of their employers knew about the detrimental effects of asbestos exposure but knew the illnesses would take so long to develop that they may not be able to connect it to their work, so they did not intervene. 

The Heat and Frost Insulators Union has taken a more proactive and educational approach to the asbestos issue. They created a Health Hazard Screen Program which was designed to inform workers and their families about the dangers of working with asbestos. 

An Instructor Training Program for Asbestos Removal was also created with the goal of educating union members, emphasizing worker’s rights to know the danger that comes with asbestos exposure. 

Progress from Labor Unions

There are now some regulations for asbestos use in the United States, but it is not banned. Asbestos is still widely used in American manufacturing.

Now the fight has turned from banning asbestos to seeking reparations and protections for workers who have been impacted, or who are currently working in these industries that increase the risk of exposure.

Labor unions fought to amend the Toxic Substances Control Act to better protect workers who were exposed to asbestos and since then legislation has begun to crack down on these regulations, making it safer for workers in these conditions.

The effort put in by members of Labor Unions to protect their health and safety and their workplace rights can be a powerful force for change in the fight against asbestos exposure. They will continue to lobby and fight for continued advancement toward worker’s rights and protections.