For years, many machinists were often exposed to asbestos in their daily jobs without even knowing it. Thanks to relatively new regulations governing the manufacturing and use of asbestos-containing materials, being a machinist today is safer than it used to be, but unfortunately that’s not the way it used to be.
How Were Machinists Exposed to Asbestos?
Because asbestos is an incredibly resilient, strong, and heat-resistant mineral, hundreds of companies chose to use it as an ingredient in the manufacturing of thousands of products produced before 1980. The problem is, when asbestos-containing products are damaged, or wear down due to age, they can release tiny, dangerous fibers into the air. These fibers can be inhaled or carried home on a worker’s skin or clothing in the form of dust. Wherever exposure takes place, asbestos fibers can get stuck inside a person’s body and eventually lead to the development of a fast-moving form of cancer called mesothelioma.
Every day, machinists work with equipment like high-speed grinding and cutting tools, drill presses, lathes, and welding gear—it’s just part of the job. Simply creating a new part or repairing an existing one can create lots of dust. When a machinist is working on a part that contains asbestos, tiny fibers can be released into the air, and a machinist can swallow or inhale these particles without even knowing it. This kind of regular exposure to asbestos can increase a machinist’s risk for developing mesothelioma.
Machinists in the Military
There are many different types of machinists, including tool and die makers, marine machinists, production machinists who create new products, and maintenance machinists who create replacement parts. These skilled workers have always played important roles in both private industry and in the military.
Machinists who served in the military are at especially high risk for developing mesothelioma. In fact, the Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation (MARF) lists “machinist” as one of the trades that exposed military personnel to asbestos most often. A full 1/3 of mesothelioma cases involve Navy or shipyard exposures.
Mesothelioma Can Take Decades to Develop
No matter where you work or worked, it takes only 1 inhaled asbestos fiber to cause mesothelioma, and with so many potential sources of repeated workplace exposure, it’s understandable why machinists are such a high-risk group.
Mesothelioma often takes a long time to develop—as much as 20-50 years. That means machinists who were exposed decades ago may just now be receiving a diagnosis. Today, there is still potential for on-the-job asbestos exposure, but the threat is lower due to public awareness and much-needed safety regulations.
Protecting Machinists from Danger
In 1970, the U.S. Congress passed the Occupational Safety and Health Act. It requires employers to provide workplaces that conform to occupational safety and health standards. In other words, employers must keep the workplace safe for workers. In addition, machinists have further protection from the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) Safety & Health Department. It is this union’s mission to continually improve regulations and legislation that affect the workplace. The IAM provides ongoing safety education and training to its members.
The National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health reports: “Overall evidence suggests there is no safe level of asbestos exposure.” With that in mind, workers should speak up if they are ever concerned about potential asbestos exposure in their workplace. Speak with management first, and follow up either with the local trade union or with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the government agency dedicated to establishing and maintaining protective workplace safety and health standards.