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Contractors/Construction Workers and Asbestos Exposure

The construction industry has always been associated with significant risk. Job-related injury is extremely common. However, the biggest risk most contractors/construction workers face is exposure to asbestos, especially when the project they are working on involves the demolition and remodeling of a structure built before 1980.

Who is Most at Risk for Exposure?

According to the Center to Protect Workers’ Rights, the construction trades most at risk for job-related asbestos exposure are insulators, plumbers and pipefitters, electricians, and sheet metal workers. That’s because asbestos was once considered by the construction industry to be the best insulating material because of its strength and heat resistance. Consequently it was used extensively in many of the pre-1980 building products these trades are exposed to in these structures.

Asbestos was used in:

  • Flatboard, micarta, permaboard, millboard, rollboard
  • Acoustical plaster or finishers
  • Packing and insulation
  • Floor and ceiling tiles
  • Roofing materials

In spite of the fact that the dangers of asbestos were known in the 1930s, the substance continued to be used in a number of construction materials until the late 1970’s.

How has Asbestos Exposure been Regulated by the Federal Government?

Unfortunately, asbestos exposure isn’t just a problem contractors/construction workers face when working on older buildings. It can also be an issue when they are performing maintenance work on buildings built after 1980 because these structures can contain asbestos in the roof or floors. That’s why the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) says that if a construction worker does not know if there is asbestos in a building, they must act as if there is.

In addition, OSHA also established a permissible exposure limit for asbestos of 12 fibers per cubic centimeter of air in 1971. This permissible exposure limit, or PEL as it is commonly called, was reduced several more times until it was set at 0.1 fibers per cubic centimeter of air in 1994.

In an article titled “Malignant Mesothelioma Mortality – United States”, 1999-2005, published July 1, 2009 in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers noted that OSHA inspection data from 1979 to 2003 showed a drop in asbestos exposure levels and a decrease in the percentage of samples that were greater than designated occupational exposure limits. However, in 2003, 20 percent of the samples collected in the construction industry were higher than the designated exposure limits.

When does Asbestos Become a Health Risk?

When left undisturbed, asbestos doesn’t pose any health risks. It is when the material is cut, drilled or removed, all of which occur during repair, demolition and remodeling, that there is the danger that it will become friable. What this means is that decaying asbestos crumbles and breaks down into fibers that become airborne. It is these fibers that are inhaled and cause exposure-related diseases like mesothelioma.

Although there are established exposure limits, no one can accurately say just how little exposure can lead to disease. That is why OSHA mandates the use of protective clothing, including a respirator, when working with asbestos.

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