When you think of asbestos-related illnesses and the people who are most at risk, steel mill workers may not be the first group to come to mind. After all, asbestos is not used at all in the actual steel-making process. Nevertheless, steel mills rely on heat, including furnaces and ovens, and are at risk for fires. For these reasons, asbestos was once used extensively throughout the mills.
Asbestos in Steel Mills
From the 1920s until the 1980s, asbestos was used for fireproofing and heat insulation throughout steel mills. At the time, it was an incredibly popular building material. In steel mills, it was primarily used as insulation for the machinery used for steel production, including steel furnaces, ovens, stoves, rolling mills, and boilers. Asbestos was also used for fireproofing the steel-making machinery components and as insulation boards for the steel molds.
What Is Asbestos?
Asbestos refers to any of six naturally occurring minerals. These minerals are composed of flexible fibers with high natural resistance to heat, electricity, corrosion, and fire. Asbestos was once considered a smart choice for projection in any project that was likely to generate any of these risks.
However, asbestos is also extremely toxic, a fact that was not known until the 1960s. It wasn’t until 1989 that the material was heavily restricted in the United States. Even today, it is not entirely banned in this country.
Why Asbestos Exposure Matters
The main risk from asbestos is airborne, although ingestion is also dangerous. The problem with its use is that even minor abrasion of any asbestos material can cause it to release tiny fibers that float in the air. When the fibers are inhaled, they can become permanently lodged in the lungs, leading to scarring. Over many years, progressive scarring can lead to lung diseases such as mesothelioma and asbestosis.
What Are Mesothelioma and Asbestosis?
The mesothelium is a thin lining that coats the lungs, chest, and abdomen and emits a fluid that lubricates the organs, allowing them to move freely. Mesothelioma is an aggressive and often fatal cancer of this lining. Some types of mesothelioma are more dangerous than others, and it is also possible to develop non-cancerous (benign) tumors of the mesothelium. While a variety of mesothelioma treatments are now available, it is difficult and often impossible to cure.
Asbestos fiber inhalation can also lead to a chronic lung disease known as asbestosis, which can range from mild to severe and can worsen over time. Symptoms of asbestosis include:
- Chronic cough
- Lung sounds, typically a crackling noise
- Shortness of breath
- Tightness or pain in the chest
- Clubbed fingers and toes
There are treatments to slow the progression of asbestosis, as well as for symptom relief, but it is not a reversible disease. Asbestosis also increases your chances of developing mesothelioma in the future.
Asbestos Banned for New Construction
Some types of asbestos products, such as spray-on products for insulation and fireproofing, were banned for new building construction as early as the 1970s. But no significant regulations were implemented until the late 1980s. And these regulations only applied to new construction, which didn’t help the steel mills that were built long before restrictions began. While efforts to remove existing asbestos started as soon as the 1970s, it is an ongoing process that continues in many places to this day.
Asbestos is not easy to safely remove. The simple act of removing it causes the fibers to be dislodged from the materials in which they are contained, launching a cloud of harmful particles into the air. Removal teams must be highly trained, and are required to wear hazmat suits with air filtration systems that block the asbestos fibers from getting into the lungs. Transportation and safe storage of the removed asbestos creates other problems. As you can imagine, the process is difficult, expensive, and time-consuming.
Asbestos Exposure Lawsuits in the Steel Industry
Even though asbestos removal and building remediation are expensive, it is even more expensive for steel companies not to protect their workers from the harm caused by asbestos fiber inhalation. The link between asbestos exposure and illness is clear. A British Medical Journal study published in 2015 showed that metal workers exposed to asbestos had three times the risk of getting mesothelioma when compared to a control group of the general population not working in the metal industry.
But it can take decades for the damage to show up. For example, a jury awarded a $250 million judgment against U.S. Steel for a case brought by the attorneys for Roby Whittington. He worked at the company for 31 years, from 1950 to 1981. In 2001, 20 years later, he contracted mesothelioma.
Are All Steel Mill Workers at Risk from Asbestos Exposure?
Workers at steel mills were likely exposed to asbestos even when not directly involved in the steelmaking process. Common uses for asbestos in steel mills included, but were not necessarily limited to:
- Building materials. In a hot and dangerous place such as a steel mill, asbestos was often used in ceiling tiles, floor tiles, liner boards, and other building materials.
- Insulation. Everything from furnaces to steam pipes had to be insulated, and asbestos was generally the material of choice.
- Machinery. Brake pads, pumps, clutches, and other heat-generating machine parts were often lined with asbestos products to reduce heat.
- Protective clothing. Masks, gloves, aprons, and even leggings frequently contained asbestos to protect steel mill workers from the intense heat and fire dangers.
Of course, many of these uses caused abrasions that allowed asbestos fibers to slough off. These fibers could easily travel through the air, affecting not only those who directly handled the material but anyone working in the mill. Even something as simple as removing an asbestos coat at lunchtime could spread the fibers to everyone else in the room.
Asbestos Exposure Risk is Not Over
Mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases may take two decades or more to show up in a person’s lungs. LTV Steel filed for bankruptcy in 2001 because of its inability to pay the claims for asbestos-caused mesothelioma contracted by its workers. This left all the LTV Steelworkers, who need medical care, without support. The bankruptcy judge approved the liquidation of the company’s assets and eliminated all of the previous employees' health coverage.
The reality is that asbestos-related illnesses are still a very real concern, and are likely to be for some time. If you or a loved one worked in the steel industry and were later diagnosed with mesothelioma or another asbestos-related illness, you may be entitled to compensation. However, there are statutes of limitations on these claims, so you will need to get a mesothelioma lawyer as soon as possible after being diagnosed.
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