Construction has always been a high-risk industry. But one of the greatest risks for construction workers, especially those involved in the renovation or repair of older buildings, is the risk of exposure to asbestos and possibly mesothelioma – the asbestos caused cancer.
Although the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) have taken various regulatory actions over the years to try to protect construction workers from asbestos, EPA data suggests that the risk remains high. In 1971, OSHA established a permissible exposure limit (PEL) for asbestos of 12 fibers per cubic centimeter of air. That was reduced to just 0.1 f/cc in 1994, but OSHA inspection data collected in 2003 found that 20 percent of air samples collected from construction job sites exceeded allowable levels.
Asbestos, a mineral fiber once prized in the construction industry for its strength and heat resistance, has been directly linked to a range of serious health problems including: lung cancer, mesothelioma, and asbestosis.
Although the dangers of asbestos were known as early as the 1930s, the substance was used in a variety of construction materials until the late 70’s including
• Flatboard, micarta, permaboard, millboard, rollboard
• Acoustical plaster or finishers
• Packing and insulation
• Floor and ceiling tiles
• Roofing materials
The Consumer Product Safety Commission restricted the use of asbestos in construction product manufacturing in 1977, but because the ban didn’t apply to existing stock, it is likely that many of these asbestos-containing construction products continued to be used until the mid 1980’s. Any construction employee working in new construction at that time or earlier, or even current workers involved in repair or renovation of buildings constructed before the mid 80’s are at higher risk for asbestos caused diseases like mesothelioma than people not exposed to asbestos. Although asbestos is not banned in the United States, its use in new construction today is more limited.
Any time an asbestos-containing material is cut, drilled or otherwise manipulated, the risk increases that it will become friable (fibrous and crumbly) and release inhalable fibers. Although the risk of disease can increase with longer and heavier exposure, the National Cancer Institute says even brief exposure sometimes results in mesothelioma. For this reason, OSHA requires anyone working in or around asbestos-containing construction products to wear appropriate protective gear to prevent inhalation.
Mesothelioma: Questions and Answers. Fact Sheet. National Cancer Institute.
Bang, KM, Mazurek, JM et al, “Malignant Mesothelioma Mortality – United States, 1999-2005” July 1, 2009, Vol 302, No. 1, JAMA.