The beginning of sheet metal processing dates back to the 16th century. The process of reducing metal to strips was done with compressive force called rolling. In 1887 recruitment of tinsmiths began by a man named Robert Kellerstrass. This was the beginning of the union organization known today as the Sheet Metal Workers International Association. There are currently more than 150,000 union members today.
Sheet metal workers craft and manipulate metals using modern techniques such as cutting, stretching, shearing, flanging and spinning. Their main responsibilities consist of assembling, installing and maintaining siding, roofing, plumbing, gutters and HVAC systems. Some sheet metal workers specialize in different fields such as building and systems testing. This job requires the use of many different types of tools and skills. Workers must measure, cut, bend, weld, bolt, rivet, form, solder and fabricate metal using saws, hammers, punches, shears, drills and calipers. Becoming a skilled sheet metal worker can take up to five years of on-the-job training as well as attendance at a vocational school.
Asbestos and Sheet Metal Work
Before the realization of the dangers of asbestos became known in the 1970s, sheet metal workers often used materials that contained this toxic material. Many structures as well as equipment were constructed with sheet metal that was used or built around asbestos materials. Additionally, because this type of work requires rendering of materials, asbestos fibers were apt to be inhaled as they became airborne. To compound the dangers, sheet metal was often applied to materials that contained asbestos. Because sheet metal workers often work in confined spaces where ventilation is poor, asbestos dust as well as other fine particulates could make these workers more susceptible to the dangers of asbestos.
Because diseases associated with asbestos can take from twenty to fifty years to manifest, many sheet metal workers that were exposed to asbestos in the middle of the 20th century are just now beginning to show signs of these asbestos related diseases. Studies were performed on sheet metal workers by the Sheet Metal Workers International Association between 1986 and 2004, with results showing that 21 percent of workers that participated in the studies have signs of pleural scarring. This is a major indicator of asbestos disease. Additional research that was done in New York City also showed that workers in this field have been significantly exposed to asbestos throughout history.