It’s no secret – the trades are known to have more health risks associated with their day-to-day tasks than the average worker. From construction to landscaping, it’s clear why these professions require extensive training and certifications to keep workers safe on the job.
Throughout a variety of trade jobs, the silent dangers of asbestos still pose a threat to the unprepared. Exposure to asbestos can lead to serious health issues, including mesothelioma cancer. Since mesothelioma and other asbestos-related health issues take 10-plus years to develop, it’s best to adapt every safety precaution to avoid exposure.
Thankfully, buildings built in the 1990s and after pose less of a threat, but older buildings require tradesmen to follow asbestos safety protocols. Professions that are still at risk include, but are not limited to, HVAC technicians, roofers and plumbers. According to The World Health Organization, 125 million workers are still exposed each year to asbestos worldwide.
So what kinds of materials put tradesmen at risk and what precautions should they take? Let’s dive into the common areas and tasks that tradesmen could encounter asbestos.
In order to troubleshoot and resolve issues with HVAC systems, these technicians need to access multiple tight-spaced areas with poor air circulation. Without the proper precautions, this puts them face first into a high-concentration asbestos area.
The most common asbestos-containing component an HVAC technician will encounter is the insulation around air ducts throughout the building. This insulation helps with containing the heat within the ducts while it moves onward to vents. In older buildings, the asbestos paper was the insulation used around ducts, which contains the dangerous asbestos fibers that can cause mesothelioma.
Another area HVAC professionals may encounter asbestos is a building’s furnace. Both the internal and external insulation of older furnaces may contain asbestos, which means it’s very important to know if the furnaces are malfunctioning or deteriorating. If so, the fibers within the insulation can break free and become airborne, settling on nearby surfaces.
Some of the required precautions HVAC technicians and other tradesmen take before tackling asbestos removal are knowing the exact risk zone, securing it with drop cloths, and wearing industry-standard protective gear.
Since asbestos was integrated into the majority of materials a plumber handles, plumbers especially are at risk working in older buildings. Similar to an HVAC technician, some areas that plumbers need to access are tight and lack proper airflow.
Older plumbing materials such as gaskets, adhesives, valves, etc., used asbestos for its heat-resistant properties. Even the older pipes were infused with asbestos to prevent water corrosion. These pipes become a risk when cutting or sawing in order to replace or remove them.
Some of the smaller materials containing asbestos still go unnoticed today, leading to plumbers working in dangerous environments without proper protection. Disturbing old plumbing repairs also poses a risk because the joint compounds and cement also contain asbestos. A skilled plumber will carry all the right equipment to test and identify different compounds throughout the piping before starting the job.
Within plumbing, the trade is actually more vast than the person who comes to fix a leak. Pipefitters and steamfitters also fall into this category – usually in the industrial and commercial space – and face the same risk since the materials are similar but on a larger scale.
It’s no shock that being an electrician is among the most dangerous professions, requiring a thorough understanding of the trade to stay safe on the job. However, electricity isn’t the only hazard they face when working with older wiring and circuit breakers. Asbestos made its way into electrical materials to withstand the intense heat output from electricity.
One way an electrician can come across asbestos is by working with arc chutes in older circuit breakers, contactors, and isolators. An arc chute’s purpose is to manage the high-temperature electrical discharge formed when a high current is interrupted. Being a product of its time, asbestos arc chutes held their integrity under high temperatures.
With massive amounts of wires running through the walls of buildings comes the need to contain their heat output. The solution was a small tube of asbestos insulation that was tight on the wire and had a carpet-like appearance. It’s wise to test a sample of older wiring insulation before tampering to avoid unnecessary health hazards.
Similar to plumbers, electrical work encompasses many different jobs. Therefore, linemen, IT professionals, and construction workers can potentially encounter these contaminated materials.
Another profession that ranks high for dangerous jobs is roofing. While enduring the intense summer heat, roofers move heavy materials up ladders and maintain their footing on a sloped surface. As a result, roofers must incorporate safe work practices to prevent life-altering injuries. Aside from slips and falls, asbestos shingles and felt pose a long-term health risk to those unprepared.
Thankfully, roofers have the benefit of open air to help circulate the disturbed fibers and prevent them from settling on clothing. Even with this benefit, any disturbed asbestos within older shingles may still find its way into the lungs of the team tasked with replacing it. Working on homes built before 1990 poses the largest risk to roofers and should be evaluated before starting the job.
Another roofing product that contains asbestos is roofing felt. Roofing felt is laid underneath the shingles and acts as a waterproof membrane to prevent moisture from entering the attic. These traditional felts are now being replaced by safer and modern EDPM synthetic rubber. EDPM contains no asbestos and is more weather resistant than traditional roofing felt.
Remodelers have a vast knowledge of different skills and are typically a conglomerate of construction experts, electricians, and designers. Since they are experts in the field, they can help you decide between a complete tear-down or a smaller remodeling project.
If a remodeling company knows there’s asbestos on the property they’re working with, there’s a lot more safety planning needed. To prepare, remodelers should bring enough plastic drop sheets to cover any surface of the affected area to ensure no residual fibers are leftover. They should also equip themselves with spray bottles to continuously spray the area they are working with. This method reduces the number of loose fibers being released into the open air.
Similar to HVAC techs, wearing protective gear is any remodeler’s first line of defense. The essentials include wearing a coverall uniform, boot covers, protective glasses, and a respirator. Remodelers should also set up a changing area with drop sheets covering the floor, which can be cleaned up and disposed of when the job is done.
The same principle applies to disposing of all waste bags containing wipes, gloves, and leftover construction materials since they cannot be disposed of in standard garbage pickup.
Remodelers can also encounter asbestos in some newer building materials where regulations have not fully banned production. Some of those products are imported asbestos sheets, insulation, and vinyl flooring. These products contain less asbestos in comparison to the materials produced before the 1990s but still pose a risk when handled during newer remodels.
Signs of Asbestos Exposure
Now that we’ve covered common trades that handle asbestos, what are the signs later on that someone was exposed or could be developing mesothelioma cancer?
Unfortunately, symptoms of mesothelioma cancer are similar to other cancers and serious health issues, which makes it critical to inform your doctor if you have worked with or around asbestos. Symptoms take anywhere between 10-50 years to show, which is why adhering to the necessary safety precautions is imperative to a long and healthy life.
As previously mentioned, symptoms take a long time to develop, meaning they likely won’t show until your later years. Mesothelioma symptoms include, but are not limited to:
- Abdominal pain
- Chest pain
- Coughing or wheezing
- Difficulty breathing (dyspnea)
- Fatigue and muscle weakness
- Fever and night sweats
- Fluid buildup
- Loss of appetite
- Unexplained weight loss
If you or a loved one have worked in any of the covered trade fields and are experiencing these symptoms, we recommended that you seek medical attention immediately and inform the practitioner of your prior work experience. The chances of effective treatment increase the earlier it’s detected, so it’s always better to play it safe and communicate with your primary care doctor.
Tradesmen are often respected for their diligent work and in-depth knowledge that helps keep our properties running smoothly. With each trade facing its own dangers on the job, it’s no wonder why so many safety regulations are in place to ensure their best wellbeing. Although we’ve come a long way in removing asbestos as one of those dangers, there’s still a lot to be done before we can confidently say that asbestos exposure is a thing of the past.