Asbestos is a naturally occurring, microscopic mineral fiber that has heat- and corrosion-resistant properties. It was therefore used in a wide variety of applications in industry and construction. Unfortunately, these tiny fibers can become airborne and lodge themselves in the lungs, the lining of the lungs, or the lining of the digestive tract. This can cause asbestos-related diseases like the deadly cancer mesothelioma, which often doesn’t appear for decades after exposure.
The wide use of asbestos was curtailed in 1981 in the United States, but asbestos-containing materials still surround us every day. The asbestos components in homes and buildings built before 1981 are still there — and disturbing them makes the fibers become airborne again.
That puts people in the construction, remodeling and disaster cleanup industries at serious risk for asbestos-related diseases.
Many building materials are presumed to contain asbestos
According to OSHA, there are many materials that, if installed before 1981, are presumed to contain asbestos. Others are presumed to contain asbestos regardless of installation date. Examples include:
- Certain types of insulation
- Roof shingles and siding
- Vinyl floor tiles
- Putties, caulk, cement and plaster
- Ceiling tiles
- Spray-on ceiling coatings
- Industrial pipe wrappings
- Heat-resistant textiles
Disturbing any of these materials can release asbestos into the air. Simply cleaning asbestos-containing vinyl floor tiles can stir up small amounts of the deadly fiber. There is no safe level of exposure to asbestos.
Asbestos exposure is, therefore, a real possibility in virtually any renovation or remodeling project on an older home or building — or when cleaning up after a storm or natural disaster. OSHA requires employers to provide their workers with reasonably safe working conditions, and it mandates a series of asbestos-specific work safety requirements.
Unfortunately, OSHA doesn’t regulate ordinary homeowners as they go through the process of renovation or disaster cleanup. OSHA’s protections only apply to workers. That leaves homeowners to protect themselves on their own, or to seek legal recourse if their exposure results in an asbestos-related disease.
Legal protections for construction workers, remodelers and cleanup workers
OSHA mandates that workers in construction, remodeling and disaster cleanup be protected from asbestos exposure. It has set a maximum permissible exposure limit (PEL) of 0.1 fiber per cubic centimeter of air as an eight-hour, time-weighted average, with an excursion limit (EL) of 1.0 fibers per cubic centimeter over a 30-minute period. Employers are responsible for ensuring no worker exceeds these exposure limits.
Beyond that, employers must assess the risk, monitor the PEL/EL, and use engineering controls and work practices to minimize the exposure or provide workers with effective respiratory protection.
Employers must also engage in proper hazard communication and demarcation, provide immediate and ongoing training to workers, separate decontamination and lunch areas, and offer medical surveillance for any workers exposed above the PEL/EL.
Records of exposure monitoring and medical surveillance must be kept for at least 30 years, and training records must be kept for at least a year after the employee’s last date of employment.
If you have been diagnosed with an asbestos-related disease such as mesothelioma, you may not know where and how you were exposed to asbestos — or it may be relatively clear. If you worked in construction, remodeling or disaster cleanup and your employer failed to protect you by following OSHA standards, contact an attorney experienced in asbestos cases.