How Asbestos Exposure Affects Construction Workers

Thanks to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) asbestos regulations, today’s construction industry is much safer than it was in previous decades. Overall rates of occupational illnesses have decreased by 67 percent since the organization started addressing worksite hazards in the 1970s. Mandatory asbestos surveillance, permissible exposure limits and optional engineering controls for class I asbestos operations are just a few of the OSHA programs that have helped reduce asbestos exposure hazards in the construction industry.

Despite these significant improvements, some construction workers may still come in contact with the carcinogenic fibers, which are known to cause lung cancer and mesothelioma cancer. Although most companies currently manufacture asbestos-free construction materials, some older products that do contain the fibers are still in place in older buildings. Products that are most likely to contain asbestos include:

  • Insulation
  • Wallboard/fiberboard
  • Shingles
  • Tiles
  • Adhesives
  • Textured coatings
  • Pipes

These materials may be present in both residential and commercial buildings that were constructed before the 1980s.

When the materials remain intact in their original state, they are typically not a health hazard. However, improper removal or handling may damage the product and release the asbestos into the air. Many basic construction activities – including sanding, sawing and grating – can introduce asbestos into the air. Demolition of older buildings may also create an asbestos exposure hazard.

Asbestos-containing materials may also become a threat as they age naturally. If the products crack or crumble, the fibers may become exposed to the open air. Once they have reached the air, they may remain there for a prolonged period of time. Even if they settle onto the ground, sweeping or walking through piles of debris may reintroduce the asbestos into the air.

Once asbestos is circulating in the airspace of a construction site, workers may easily inhale or ingest it. While any level of exposure can put someone at risk of an asbestos-related cancer, extended exposure over the course of a career can greatly increase a worker’s risk for mesothelioma, lung cancer and other similar illnesses. Because of the high level of asbestos exposure that construction workers may sustain, they have an elevated risk for these diseases.

How Construction Workers can Reduce their Asbestos Exposure Risk

Despite the risky nature of their occupation, construction workers can take several steps to reduce their chances of inhaling asbestos.

First, only workers who have completed accredited asbestos training courses should work on projects where asbestos-containing materials are present. Employers are legally required to pay for the initial training – as well as routine refresher courses. These courses outline exposure-reducing removal methods (including the wet removal method), as well as other safety procedures that construction workers should adhere to at all times.

Employees must also be diligent about wearing appropriate protective gear when handling asbestos products. Employers are required to provide this gear, including face coverings, gloves and respirators. Workers should wear this gear at all times at asbestos-contaminated jobsites, but they should never wear the gear home. This reduces the risk of secondhand exposure for the workers’ families.

To further reduce the risk of asbestos exposure on a jobsite, construction workers must appropriately clear the worksite of all asbestos debris. Workers must enclose the debris in labeled containers, seal them off and bring them to a designated disposal site.

Even if they carefully adhere to these regulations, construction workers should register for regular asbestos-related disease screenings. Worker participation is not mandatory, but employees must provide free access to these screenings. Since these examinations can diagnose asbestos-related diseases in their earliest stages, they are extremely beneficial for construction workers with an elevated risk of developing these illnesses.

Author bio: Faith Franz researches and writes about health-related issues for The Mesothelioma Center. One of her focuses is living with cancer and current mesothelioma news.

Source: Occupational Safety and Health Administration: OSHA Commonly Used Statistics. (2012). Retrieved from


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