Many people think asbestos has been banned, but that’s only partially true. The 1989 ruling prohibiting asbestos products in the United States was quickly overturned by the courts. Today, imports of asbestos products continue, although companies, for the most part, don’t use it as employees have lobbied for a safer workplace.
Lawsuits blaming asbestos for illnesses such as mesothelioma have doubtless played a role. Asbestos has been known as a health risk since 1918 when the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a higher rate of death among exposed workers, and the British Medical Journal in 1924 reported on hazards of asbestos dust.
How Much Asbestos is Allowed?
OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, considers any product as asbestos-containing if it is more than 1 percent asbestos. Still, many health experts believe that any level of exposure has health risks, which include, in addition to mesothelioma, lung cancer and other respiratory diseases.
Despite the easing of the ban, several asbestos products are still illegal in the United States, including spray-applied asbestos, artificial embers, and pharmaceutical goods.
Health advocates continue to introduce total bans on asbestos, but all have stalled in Congress.
According to some experts, asbestos exposure is the No. 1 cause of workplace deaths worldwide, with about 90,000 deaths annually.
How Much Asbestos is Safe?
The OSHA standard as of 1997 is 0.1 cubic centimeters of fibers, averaged in eight-hour shifts during a 40-hour work week. Employers must inform workers and train them if exposure goes beyond those limits. In some industries, OSHA stipulates workers must wear goggles, have a doctor monitor their health, and get help to stop smoking.
Which Workers Are Still Exposed?
An estimated 1.3 million workers in the U.S. are still exposed to asbestos in the workplace, according to OSHA. These include:
- Construction workers and demolition workers.
- Shipyard workers.
- Industrial workers, factory workers and textile workers..
The occupation with the greatest risk of exposure is mining, including, obviously, asbestos miners.
Workers in other occupations also face exposure, although generally are not as at risk, because of asbestos in insulation, appliances or other products. Older buildings still often contain asbestos risks.
What Should Employers Do?
Whether an occupation is high-risk or not, employers should follow OSHA guidelines, which include:
- Controlling exposure by marking off affected areas, providing masks or respirators if needed, and avoiding letting workers eat or drink in any risky zones.
- Have workers checked out by doctors if they are exposed to asbestos fibers or dust.
- Demolition workers are subject to more stringent guidelines and must also follow state regulations.
- Train workers about how to stay healthy and the risks of working around asbestos.
The Cost of Noncompliance
The human costs of asbestos exposure are high. Between 236,000 and 277,654 Americans died from this between 1999 and 2017, even after more stringent guidelines. More than 40,000 deaths a year are linked to asbestos.
In addition, the effects of exposure can take decades to show up–10 to 40 years, the Mayo Clinic says. According to Cancer.gov, a worker’s family members sometimes are affected as well. People who are regularly exposed to asbestos face a 1 in 20 chance of developing mesothelioma, which is fatal to 90 percent within five years.
Consequently, families seek legal help for medical bills and income loss. Companies that pay heavy penalties have been forced into bankruptcy–about 100, according to one estimate.
About 50,000 new cases are expected to be filed per year. The average claim is between $1 million and $1.4 million.
Seeking Legal Advice
Whether you’re an employee worried about asbestos exposure, or an employer concerned about how to ameliorate it, it’s a good idea to do preliminary research into obtaining legal advice. The list of companies that have been sued in asbestos lawsuits is a long one. While exposure, and asbestos-related illnesses, have decreased with greater awareness and regulation, that’s small comfort to those who’ve become ill or those who have lost loved ones to mesothelioma, lung cancer or related illnesses.