Handling hot, dangerous materials and operating heavy machinery on a daily basis can certainly create some dirty, dangerous situations. One potentially deadly hazard steel mill workers might face is exposure to asbestos. Today, employees are protected by special rules and regulations governing how asbestos-containing materials must be handled or interacted with, but sadly this wasn’t always the case.The dangers of asbestos were not widely known or made public until approximately 1980. So countless steel mill workers may have been exposed to asbestos-containing products without warning—every time they went to work. Employees who were regularly exposed to asbestos may have a higher risk of developing a deadly form of cancer called mesothelioma. To complicate matters further, because mesothelioma symptoms can take decades to develop, steel mill workers who retired years ago could just now be realizing how they may have gotten sick.
How Were Steel Mill Workers Exposed to Asbestos?
Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral. Because it is incredibly resilient, strong, and heat-resistant, dozens of companies chose to use it as an ingredient in the manufacturing of thousands of products produced before 1980. The problem is that when asbestos-containing products are damaged, or wear down due to age, they can release tiny, dangerous fibers into the air—where they can be inhaled or carried home on a worker’s clothing in the form of dust. Wherever exposure takes place, asbestos fibers can get stuck in a person’s body and eventually lead to the development of mesothelioma.
According to the Infrastructure Health & Safety Association, asbestos was used in the manufacturing of many products and devices commonly used in the steel mill industry, including:
- Coke ovens (by-product plant—insulation on pipes and tanks)
- Blast furnaces (cast house and around furnaces and stoves)
- Waste heat boilers in steelmaking and steam generation
- Central boiler facilities in steam generation
Steel mills are filled with hard-working people who perform many different kinds of jobs. Where and how steel mill workers may have been exposed to asbestos usually depends on the position they held, but mesothelioma has been known to affect a wide range of those in steel mill occupations, including:
- Motor Inspectors
It takes only 1 inhaled asbestos fiber to cause mesothelioma, and with so many potential sources of repeated workplace exposure, it’s understandable why steel mill workers are such a high-risk group.
Exposure Beyond the Steel Mill
From pipefitters to welders and machinists, steel mill workers have valuable skills that are useful in other industries like automobile manufacturing and shipbuilding. Unfortunately, asbestos-containing products were often used in these work environments as well. So folks who worked in steel mills, then went on to work in other industries, may have increased their chances of being exposed to asbestos—and eventually to developing mesothelioma.
Mesothelioma Can Take Decades to Develop
While obvious workplace hazards like spilled molten metal can injure or kill a steel mill worker immediately, asbestos fibers can settle inside a person’s body for decades before they eventually cause mesothelioma.
Mesothelioma often takes as long as 20-50 years to develop. That means steel mill workers 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 much lower due to public awareness and much-needed safety regulations.