In the days of the industrial revolution, electricity, power and heat were typically derived from steam. A steamfitter is a worker who is trained in the installation, inspection, maintenance, and repair of steam operated systems, whether they are employed for heating or generating power. These systems were commonplace for decades, providing heat and power for naval ships, trains, buildings and power plants. A steamfitter was also responsible for the various equipment that encompassed these systems, including but not limited to radiators, boilers, pumps, valves, gaskets and oil burners.
Since most steam operated machinery tends to generate heat, it was necessary to use fire retardant materials to protect the devices as well as ensure safety. In the industrial age, the most common material used was asbestos, a naturally occurring mineral that functions as an excellent insulator, resistant to both fire and electrical conduction. Wrapped around burning hot pipes, asbestos would allow steamfitters to easily work with and maneuver around equipment. Much of the asbestos used in these situations would be spray-on insulation such as W.R. Grace’s Monokote. Typically these sprays contain roughly 12 percent asbestos. Another common use for asbestos was in cement paneling. These durable sheets of asbestos-reinforced cement were extremely useful for preventing fires and insulating rooms.
Asbestos and Steamfitting
It was common therefore for steamfitters to work in asbestos-laden environments throughout the day as they dismantled, fixed, and reattached pipes and other system infrastructure. This only increased the potential risks, as many asbestos wraps and insulating blocks had to be torn apart before the system could be repaired. It is only when asbestos fibers are disturbed that the particles can be inhaled, causing irreparable damage to the lungs and body. For those stationed on marine vessels, asbestos would have been used in both pipes and to prevent fire from spreading from deck to deck. The engine room, where steamfitters would spend the majority of their time, would be walled off with asbestos due to the risk of such a fire.
For most steamfitters, these factors made asbestos exposure extremely likely. While other occupations are done with clear and implied risks, few in the steamfitter industry were made aware of the perils associated with their job. However, as many are finding out today, prolonged exposure to asbestos can result in a variety of pernicious illnesses such as asbestosis and mesothelioma, maladies for which the prognosis is typically grim.