The term “laborer” is generic, but refers to almost anyone who accomplishes a hands-on work task. Most of the world’s manufacturing, construction and agricultural industries are dominated by a labor force, and these countless millions of workers are exposed to a number of possible safety risks on the job.
Among these risks is the danger of exposure to toxic substances. In times past these substances were often used as part of construction or cleanup, and today the danger lies primarily in the exposure to toxins left over from an earlier period. Asbestos is one of these substances, and although the dangers of exposure to this material have long been known, the problem of securing laborers from the effects of asbestos fibers is far from resolved.
Today most laborers are exposed to asbestos during demolition of older buildings or renovation of these structures where asbestos has been used. Until recently asbestos was the primary insulating compound used in areas where extreme temperatures are experienced. This would include shipyards, foundries and metal works, power stations, and almost anywhere a large boiler room was located. Asbestos is a natural magnesium silicate compound, mined throughout the world and used extensively because it will not burn, does not conduct heat and is flame retardant.
Laborers today who service or repair equipment in aging buildings are often exposed to asbestos fibers that have broken loose from the material they were woven into, and become airborne. At demolition sites the dust that occurs during the removal of building materials contains asbestos fibers that are easily inhaled by laborers in the vicinity.
The U.S. Government, particularly the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, has taken steps to educate workers about the dangers of asbestos. In addition a number of states now require public postings to workers about the possible exposure to asbestos at certain locations where the material is known to exist. Most states now require specific tests for asbestos fibers prior to demolition of buildings, and have begun programs for asbestos supervisor training.
Asbestos fiber, if inhaled can settle into the pleural lining of the lungs and have a latency period of up to 50 years before symptoms of disease manifest. Asbestosis is a condition that is caused by long-term asbestos exposure, but a number of other cancers including mesothelioma are also linked directly to the inhalation of these silicate fibers.
Mesothelioma has no known cure and laborers who have been exposed to asbestos in the past may be subject to this illness long after working around this dangerous substance.