Top Occupations Historically at Risk of Asbestos Exposure

Photo of a worker on a construction site.

Mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases are relatively rare in the general population. But they aren’t as rare among people who worked in certain trades and occupations that frequently exposed them to asbestos.

In fact, exposure to asbestos in the workplace is the leading cause of mesothelioma. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 27 million U.S. workers were exposed to asbestos between 1940 and 1979.

Today, we have a lot of data to tell us which occupations were most at risk during the time that asbestos was heavily in use. Some of these include:

1. Building Trades and Construction Workers

According to the CDC, people who work in construction were the most heavily exposed to asbestos and continue to be exposed to the deadly mineral today. This includes a variety of laborers and tradesmen, such as drywall workers, floor tile installers, and roofers, who constructed and finished commercial and residential buildings, as well as millwrights, pipefitters, and HVAC workers, who erected equipment and installed piping and utilities during construction phases at industrial job sites. There are several reasons why construction has remained a leading at-risk profession for asbestos exposure:

  • Most asbestos produced in the 20th century was used in construction, and most asbestos produced today is still used in construction.
  • Construction workers decades ago had fewer protections when it came to worksite health and safety protections. For workers today, strict adherence to worksite safety standards is critical to controlling exposure risks.
  • Today, construction workers continue to regularly engage in the repair, renovation, removal, and maintenance of asbestos-containing products installed years ago, which disturbs asbestos fibers and causes them to be released into the air where they can be inhaled.

Learn more about construction workers' asbestos exposure.

2. Insulators

Asbestos was used widely in insulation materials in industrial, commercial, and residential buildings in the mid-20th century, posing significant risks to workers who installed these products during that time. Those products included thermal pipe and block insulation, insulating and refractory cements, fireproofing sprays, fire-retardant boards, attic and wall insulation, and countless others.

Today, people in trades and professions that install, remove, and replace insulation or work with drywall, framing, and other construction practices that can disturb older insulation still face significant risks of exposure to harmful asbestos fibers. This is especially true for certain types of insulation products (such as pipe insulation) that can decay with time and become prone to easily breaking down into small airborne fibers.

Learn more about insulators and asbestos exposure.

3. Boilermakers

Boilermakers, boiler operators, and other people who worked with boilers are one of the most at-risk groups for occupational asbestos exposure.

Historically, these workers were routinely exposed to asbestos on the job, including asbestos present in thermal insulation, refractory materials, and gaskets. Workers who used industrial machinery or tools to work on boilers also endured high exposure levels due to the release of asbestos fibers into the air.

Learn more about asbestos exposure among boilermakers.

4. Steelworkers

The metalworking industry relied on asbestos as a cost-effective barrier and insulator for much of the 20th century, using it in everything from protective gear and machinery to the metalworking facilities themselves. As a result, many steelworkers (including metal workers, foundry workers, smelters, and sheet metal professions) who worked in these facilities were exposed to asbestos daily.

Today, better workplace safety standards and limitations on the use of asbestos have helped reduce some of the risks faced by metalworkers. However, these workers can still be exposed to asbestos-containing products that remain legal and to asbestos found in older buildings, machinery, and equipment.

Learn more about asbestos risks for steelworkers.

5. Mechanics

Mechanics—including industrial maintenance mechanics, automotive mechanics, and aircraft mechanics, among others—were routinely exposed to asbestos, which was readily present in products, machinery, and equipment they installed, repaired, and maintained., There is a long and verifiable history of mechanics being diagnosed with mesothelioma and other asbestos-related conditions.

Industrial maintenance mechanics routinely worked with asbestos-containing thermal insulation, gaskets, and packing when they repaired, maintained, and installed pumps, valves, compressors, and pipefittings.

In the automotive industry, occupational exposure risks existed nearly everywhere – from brake components, clutches, and heat seals to the machinery mechanics needed to perform their jobs, including brake grinders and compressors. These risks were compounded by the fact that many auto mechanics worked in conditions with poor ventilation, poor dust management, and inadequate cleaning practices.

Aircraft mechanics and maintenance technicians faced similar risks in both private industry and the military. These mechanics would routinely handle a range of aircraft parts that contained asbestos, including brakes, insulation, and electrical components.

Learn more about mechanic asbestos exposure.

6. Electricians

Electricians who worked on new construction from the 1920s through the 1980s, as well as electricians who performed work on older buildings that were built during this time, are among the tradespeople who are most at risk for mesothelioma.

In fact, one 2018 study published in the International Journal of Epidemiology found that former electricians are nearly 16 times more likely to be diagnosed with mesothelioma than people who did not work as electricians.

That’s because asbestos was used widely in building materials adjacent to electrical components of homes and commercial structures. As such, electricians whose work required them to cut, move, demolish, or repair drywall, insulation, and other asbestos-containing materials faced significant risks of disturbing asbestos fibers and inhaling them.

Learn more about asbestos exposure risks among electricians.

7. Plumbers

Plumbers have incredibly important jobs, but they have been particularly vulnerable to the hazardous effects of asbestos due to the nature of their work.

Both during the time that asbestos was heavily used in building materials and long after when plumbers were required to work on older homes and buildings that contained asbestos, people in the plumbing profession were routinely exposed to asbestos found in asphaltic cement pipes, pipe wrap insulation, joint compounds, boilers, and other building materials plumbers worked with or near. As a result, plumbers are overrepresented in data of occupations most at risk for developing mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases.

Learn more about plumbers and asbestos exposure.

8. Veterans

Service members who served in branches of the U.S. armed forces have historically been diagnosed with mesothelioma at higher rates than civilians. In fact, U.S. military veterans account for up to 30% of all mesothelioma claims filed each year.

While asbestos exposure was common among military veterans in all branches of the armed forces, those who served in the Navy have been found to be most at risk. That’s because every sailor who served on a Navy vessel prior to the 1980s was likely exposed to asbestos, often by way of insulation materials used in engine rooms and the various pumps, valves, and boilers aboard these ships. A lack of protective gear during this time also increased risks. Even after the 1980s, service members who worked on older ships, shipyards, and military bases were still at risk of encountering older asbestos-containing materials.

Learn more about asbestos exposure in the military.

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If you have questions about your rights after being diagnosed with mesothelioma or another asbestos-related disease, we want to help, call (855) 744-1922 or contact us online for a free consultation.