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Asbestos: How and why it’s your responsibility

The statistics on asbestos exposure are sobering. In a 2004 report by the American Thoracic Society, asbestos exposure was cited as the leading cause of occupational cancer (cancer caused entirely or partially by exposure to carcinogens at work) in the United States. Deaths related to asbestos exposure are likely to surpass 200,000 within the next fifteen to eighteen years. The dangers of asbestos exposure to the American worker are not limited to cancer. Depending on the frequency and duration of exposure, asbestos fiber inhalation results in significant numbers of diseases and impairments in the national workforce every year.

Lungs after asbestos exposure
The pleural plaques visible on this woman’s lungs were caused by asbestos exposure.

Deaths tolls from 1979-2001 resulting from asbestos-related diseases are estimated to lie between 43,000 to 59,500. Among the two most deadly diseases linked to asbestos exposure are lung carcinoma and mesothelioma.

Lung Carcinoma

The map below illustrates rates of Lung and Bronchus Cancer Death Rates by State in 2008.

Lung cancer death rates
(U.S. Cancer Statistics Working Group. United States Cancer Statistics: 1999–2008 Incidence and Mortality Web-based Report. Atlanta (GA): Department of Health).
According to the Department of Health, an estimated 4%-12% of lung cancer incidents are caused by exposure to asbestos on the job. Even more frightening is that a staggering 20%-25% of all workers subjected to heavy asbestos exposure will develop lung cancer.

Pleural Mesothelioma

Mesothelioma is a cancer originating in the protective lining of the body’s internal organs. From 1940 to 1970, considered peak years for asbestos exposure, the number of workers exposed to asbestos resulted in dramatic increases in the number of mesothelioma cases reported in the United States twenty to thirty years later. While the disease seems to be in decline (the result of increased education and regulation), the disease still has a very deadly presence. In the year 2000, approximately 3,000 people in the United States died of mesothelioma.

Asbestos Exposure

Beginning with the Industrial Revolution, asbestos was heavily mined after it was found to have valuable insulating properties. By the mid-1900s, the mineral was used in everything from plastic yard furniture to construction materials. It is the presence of asbestos in these bygone construction materials (concrete, bricks, ceiling insulation, flooring, roofing and fire retardant coating) that presents the greatest present-day risk to workers. The highest rate of occupational asbestos exposure takes placeduring asbestos removal work, in the repair, renovation, and maintenance of structures built with asbestos materials (usually before the late ’70s). Workers involved in ship building and repair are also at higher risks of asbestos exposure.

Regulation in the United States

In the 1930s, the medical community became aware of the dangers of asbestos and associated cancers, but governmental agencies in the United States did not begin regulating its use until well into the 1970s. Currently, the EPA and OSHA legally regulate six forms of asbestos minerals, and there are legal standards in place for acceptable asbestos concentration levels in drinking water, schools, and the workplace.
In 1986, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) established what it calls Permissible Exposure Limits (PELs) of asbestos inthe workplace air (as accumulated over an average 8-hour shift and a 40-hour workweek).

An Employer’s Obligation with Regard to Asbestos

Employers whose workers are exposed to asbestos are legally required to provide personal protective equipment, trainingworkers in their use and in asbestos safety standards. Likewise, under OSHA regulations, workers are required to use personal protective equipment, undergo medical testing (chest x-rays, physical exams) when exposed to asbestos levels above the PEL, and document such instances.
It is the explicit responsibility of building and facility owners to be aware and document the location and quantity of asbestos on site. Likewise, it is the explicit legalresponsibility of the employer to inform their employees about the presence and location of asbestos through signage and warning labels, and educate employees on the associated risks and preventative measures through proper training. Failing to inform workers about asbestos risks carries not only moral implications, but can mean costly legal consequences for an employer. The use of proper OSHA-regulated warning signage and labeling protects the health and safety of workers, and ensures that an employer stays within the regulations established by law.

Personal protective equipment
Today, asbestos removal is the most frequent cause of exposure – it requires personal protective equipment, as well as plenty of signage and labels warning of the danger.]

Warning Signage

As required by OSHA article 1910.1001(j)(4), “Warning signs shall be provided and displayed at each regulated area. In addition, warning signs shall be posted at all approaches to regulated areas so that an employee may read the signs and take necessary protective steps before entering the area.”
Additionally, warning signs must use the following wording to indicate an asbestos danger:
  • DANGER
  • ASBESTOS
  • MAY CAUSE CANCER
  • CAUSES DAMAGE TO LUNGS
  • AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY
Other important provisions include the requirement that where the use of respirators and protective clothing is required, asbestos warning signs must use language such as “WEAR RESPIRATORY PROTECTION AND PROTECTIVE CLOTHING IN THIS AREA.”
Employers are not merely responsible for posting warning signage. Employers must take all necessary means to make sure that such signage is understood. According to OSHA, the employer’s “means to ensure employee comprehension may include the use of foreign languages, pictographs and graphics, and awareness training.”

Labeling Raw Materials and Waste

As required by OSHA article 1910.1001(j)(5), warning labels must ” be affixed to all raw materials, mixtures, scrap, waste, debris, and other products containing asbestos fibers, or to their containers.”
Employers are required to affix warning labels indicating asbestos waste or materials to bags or containers of protective clothing and equipment. Labels can also be used forbags or containers of scrap, waste, and debris containing asbestos fibers in any areas where they will clearly be noticed by employees likely to be exposed. The labels must include the following language:
  • DANGER
  • CONTAINS ASBESTOS FIBERS
  • MAY CAUSE CANCER
  • CAUSES DAMAGE TO LUNGS
  • DO NOT BREATHE DUST
  • AVOID CREATING DUST
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