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What you need to know about asbestos in the workplace

Asbestos is a naturally-occurring mineral found in numerous products and materials with which New Jersey construction workers come into contact on a daily basis. As FindLaw explains, asbestos is known for its excellent insulating ability and resistance to fire and was extensively used in building projects through the 1970s. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 1 million commercial and public buildings contain significant amounts of asbestos.

While asbestos usage has been curtailed in the past 40 years, it is still found in many commercial and consumer products, including the following:

  • Floor tiles
  • Heavy machinery parts
  • Plastics
  • Paper goods
  • Brake pads
  • Textiles

In addition, it is added to binding materials for bricks, stones, tiles, etc.

Asbestos dangers

Unlike most minerals, when asbestos breaks down, it turns into microscopic fibers rather than dust. Anyone coming into contact with it unknowingly breathes these fibers into their lungs where they build up over time and can cause such debilitating conditions as asbestosis, a lung-scarring condition, and mesothelioma, an aggressive and fatal cancer.

FindLaw lists the following as being the types of workers most at risk for workplace asbestos exposure:

  • Construction workers
  • Pipefitters and welders
  • Bricklayers and stone masons
  • Auto mechanics
  • Miners
  • Shipbuilders

Firefighters, too, are at risk for asbestos exposure because they so often must put out fires in older buildings. Renovators and asbestos removal workers themselves are likewise at high risk.

Types of exposure

While all of the above workers have occupational asbestos exposure risks, there are two other types of exposure as well. Workers’ families are at risk for para-occupational exposure because they breathe in the asbestos fibers brought home on the workers’ clothing and shoes. Anyone who lives or works in or near a building containing asbestos materials is at risk for what is called neighborhood exposure. Asbestos fibers are so tiny and light that the slightest breeze can disperse them over a wide area.

The main problem with asbestos exposure is that it is impossible to tell which materials contain it unless they are labeled as such. More frightening still, it can take years or even decades for symptoms of mesothelioma or asbestosis to appear. Diagnoses 20-40 years after initial exposure are commonplace.