Asbestos in Metal Works

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral with an innate resistance to heat and fire. Unlike stone, it is fibrous like jute or cotton, and has the ability to be woven into fabric. It is also very lightweight. As a result, asbestos was used to line blast furnace doors and conduits as well as many of the tools used in iron and steel production.

In addition, asbestos insulation could be found in the protective fireproof clothing worn by steelworkers. This included asbestos gloves, aprons and overcoats as well as face masks. When the lining of this clothing was ripped open or became worn, asbestos fibers were released into the air.

Specific jobs in the steel industry that involved significant asbestos exposure include:

  • pourer/caster
  • operator
  • tender
  • furnace operator/inspector
  • machine setter
  • steel lather/millwright
  • welder

The Aluminum Industry

Aluminum production and recycling is carried out at lower temperatures, but such production facilities still contained substantial amounts of asbestos. The process for extracting aluminum from bauxite ore requires that the ore be dissolved in what is called a reduction cell, which contains a solution of sodium, calcium and fluoride. The heat shield that surrounded these reduction cells and conduits carrying molten aluminum around the plant consisted of a special type of cement that was impregnated with asbestos and sprayed onto the surface. This would harden into a protective shell that would keep workers safe from burn injuries. Much of the asbestos cement used for this purpose contained crocidolite, one of the deadliest forms of asbestos and a known factor in the development of mesothelioma.

As long as this cement remained solid, the asbestos posed no real hazard. However, after several years, this insulation, or lagging would begin to crumble into asbestos dust, or become friable. As these loose fibers entered the environment, they could be inhaled by unsuspecting workers.

The danger to aluminum workers did not end at the production plant. Aluminum is one of the primary materials used in the construction of HVAC systems. Workers who build and service these systems must go into the crawlspaces between floors and under buildings. When it comes to structures built after 1980, this is not as much of a hazard; however, older buildings are still full of crumbling asbestos lagging that surround aging steam pipes, despite the fact that the use of such asbestos cement was outlawed in many places in the 1970s.

Because asbestos diseases - particularly mesothelioma - have such lengthy latency periods, it is important to have regular checkups if you were a metal worker prior to the early 1980s. Fortunately, recent advances in diagnostic medicine have made it easier to detect mesothelioma in its earliest stages, when it is most treatable.

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