The effects of asbestos exposure continue to this day despite the diminished use of the fibrous mineral. While it can be easy to assume that the majority of those exposed to asbestos worked in the asbestos handling and insulation fields, dozens of occupations ran the risk of exposure to the dangerous substance. Even more shocking is that there are still many occupations today that deal with asbestos exposure as a regular part of the job.
Exposure Risk Was, and Is, Widespread
From the 1940s to the 1970s, asbestos exposure was in its heyday, exposing millions of U.S. citizens to the potentially deadly mineral. Even today, about 3,000 asbestos-caused cases of mesothelioma are diagnosed each year. While this is less than it once was, it still goes to show that asbestos exposure remains a serious issue because of how aggressively is affects the body
Everyone from electric and gas utility workers to carpenters, electricians, firefighters, and even those stationed long-term on naval or mercantile vessels are at risk of exposure to asbestos to this day. Exposure to asbestos doesn’t even have to happen directly, as the fibers can attach to worker’s clothes, further exposing family and friends outside of work.
The majority of modern exposure to asbestos is not due to the current installation of asbestos, but rather encountering asbestos-containing products installed years ago. Those working in the construction industry now face the greatest threat of exposure through renovation, repair, or removal of structures containing asbestos. According to the Center for Disease Control, an estimated 1.3 million employees working in construction and other industries are currently at risk of heavy asbestos exposure.
Many workers who have been and are continuing to be exposed to asbestos may not even be aware that it can cause asbestosis conditions. Symptoms include shortness of breath, neck or facial swelling, a sudden loss of appetite or rapid weight loss, and crackling sound in the lungs while breathing. On their own, these symptoms might be easily waved off, but in conjunction with each other, it can point to asbestosis.
Better Safety Standards Needed
Though remodeling, demolishing or repairing buildings that contain asbestos still poses a major threat to construction workers, the risk of exposure isn’t contained to those activities. While the Environmental Protection Agency has banned some products containing asbestos in the United States, they have yet to ban all asbestos-containing products.
Asbestos cement is still used by major corporations like AT&T to house fiber optic cable, and when workers install or repair those cables, they inevitably create dust. When companies cut corners on protections for workers to save money, they might be dooming them to disease and death.
Workers who inhale, ingest, or even have their skin come into contact with the most minute levels of asbestos fibers are at risk of developing asbestos-related illnesses. While inhalation is perhaps the most dangerous way that asbestos exposure can occur, ingesting the fibers can cause them to become lodged in the esophagus or even the kidneys and urinary tract. The dangers posed by asbestos exposure can take years to come to fruition, leaving workers betrayed and confused as to how it might have happened.
The companies that work with asbestos-laden materials or deal with decades-old construction projects that are likely to have used asbestos have a duty to their workers to protect them. About 58% of U.S. construction workers have stated that they feel as though productivity is prioritized over safety by their employers, and while companies do have a responsibility to be productive, delivering better and more effective safety standards should be of utmost importance.
More Oversight Can Help
In an era where deregulation seems to be an issue championed by many politicians, calling attention to those affected by asbestos is more important than ever. With the EPA’s recent decision to make it easier for companies to use asbestos despite internal outcry and the relatively weak laws enacted to protect firefighters and other workers from exposure to harmful materials, more advanced oversight is increasingly important.
Lawmakers rely on public administrators and their in-depth knowledge of the healthcare system and healthcare issues to craft effective policy. Ensuring that public administrators understand that exposure to harmful substances in the workplace such as asbestos is just as important as other social determinants of health like access to education and food security. If public administrators are aware of the impact that asbestos exposure has not only on the workers who have been affected but their families as well, better legislation regulating asbestos will be the end result.
A substance that can cause so much damage with minimal exposure whether, through inhalation, ingestion or simply physically handling it should absolutely be subject to strict government oversight. As it stands, companies are overwhelmingly favored over workers when it comes to asbestos legislation. However, those running the companies that regularly deal with asbestos exposure aren’t contending with the terrible afflictions that it leads to years down the road.
Though the government has previously stepped in to address asbestos exposure in the workplace, the numbers show that it was unfortunately not nearly enough. Modern workers are still at risk of exposure, and companies that cut corners, putting their workers at risk, are often able to shirk their responsibility for the damage done. Asbestos exposure isn’t some relic of the past, but a real issue facing the U.S. today, and one that needs to be addressed before further generations are affected.