What Young Workers Need to Know About Asbestos

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Warning Label

If you are a young worker who is newly employed or about to enter the work force, you were probably told about the importance of workplace safety. Depending on the industry, there can be many different safety concerns. One of the hidden dangers you may encounter in the workplace is asbestos.

Despite its beneficial uses, asbestos can be highly toxic and can cause cancer (carcinogenic) if inhaled or swallowed. If asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) are broken or disturbed, they can release tiny asbestos fibers into the air. Exposure to asbestos is known to cause a number of serious diseases including a prognosis of mesothelioma, asbestosis and lung cancer.

How could you come across asbestos? One way is through the demolition of an older home or building. U.S. buildings and house constructed prior to the 1980s typically have some asbestos in them. Builders used asbestos insulation – something for which asbestos was utilized quite often – for generations. These same older structures also had wiring that was insulated by asbestos.

And they were built with asbestos-laden flooring and ceiling tiles.

All this asbestos is fine – as long as it is not uncovered or disturbed. Once that happens, the danger begins.

How Asbestos Exposure Affects Your Health

One of the most aggressive and dangerous diseases caused by asbestos exposure is mesothelioma. This cancer causes tumors to be formed in the protective lining that surrounds the lung, abdomen or heart. Symptoms of mesothelioma can take approximately 20 to 50 years to surface after initial exposure.

Scar tissue can also develop in the lung as a result of inhaling asbestos fibers. This disease is called asbestosis. The scar tissue in the lung makes it difficult for the lungs to expand and fill with air. Asbestosis can also progress to mesothelioma or lung cancer.

Safe Asbestos Practices

Young workers who work in the building industries – including tradespeople such as plumbers and electricians – have the highest risk of asbestos exposure. Workers who demolish old buildings or renovate old houses are also at risk. Though most uses of asbestos are heavily regulated, old homes and buildings built before 1980 most likely contain asbestos.

If there is a possibility that you may be working with or near ACMs, by law your employer should inform you. You also have the right to ask. Your employer should also provide you with Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), including special clothing and a respirator. Before you leave the worksite, the clothing must be disposed of. 

Asbestos is not usually a problem if it is in good condition, but educating yourself about the occupational risks can help you avoid unnecessary exposure while at work. If you are not sure if a material contains asbestos, treat it as if it does and take the proper precautions. Only professionals who are properly trained and licensed should handle or dispose of ACMs.

Bio: Michelle Y. Llamas is a writer for the Mesothelioma Center. She is committed to generating awareness about the dangers of asbestos exposure and providing information regarding breakthroughs in mesothelioma treatment.