The naturally occurring group of fibrous minerals known as asbestos have been used in the United States since the late 1800s. But the carcinogenic risks associated with asbestos were widely unknown to the general public until the 1960s and ’70s.
The use of asbestos was regulated somewhat by 1970’s Clean Air Act and 1976’s Toxic Substances Control Act, but it wasn’t until 1989 that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finally issued its asbestos ban and phase-out rule, which intended to eventually ban the manufacture, import, sale or processing of asbestos. Yet asbestos remained in use in manufacturing, shipyards, building construction and other occupations.
In the late 1980s, however, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) created regulations to control the use of asbestos and limit exposure to workers. Unfortunately, industries in which asbestos was prevalent also happened to be large employers, meaning millions of laborers were exposed to asbestos and its associated health risks, including mesothelioma.
Asbestos Guidelines for Workers
For workers in “general industry,” construction or shipyard employment, the risk of asbestos exposure was high. Because of this, OSHA instituted a number of guidelines from the late 1980s through the early 1990s, including:
- Permissible exposure limits (PEL): 1 asbestos fiber per cubic centimeter of air is considered “permissible” in an eight-hour time frame (this is a decrease from 0.2, which was enforced from 1986-1994). Workers also have an excursion limit (EL) of 1.0 asbestos fibers per cubic centimeter over a 30-minute period. Since 1986, it has been an employer’s job to ensure exposure doesn’t exceed this level.
- Environmental controls and equipment: If the work involves the risk of exceeding the PEL or EL, employers must use proper engineering controls and work practices to keep it at or below the PEL and EL. Employers must reduce exposure to the lowest levels possible and provide proper respiratory protection. Each “sector” has different control methods for construction, shipyard and general industry.
- Asbestos risk transparency: Employers who need workers to operate in a potential asbestos risk zone have to provide proper hazard communication, as well as post warning signs with notification of above-PEL or EL risks.
- Asbestos training: Depending on the sector in which someone works, there are different asbestos exposure training requirements. If any worker is exposed at or above the PEL, they must receive classification-relevant training before they begin work, and for each year of employment.
- Medical monitoring: Ongoing medical surveillance must be provided for workers who work in construction or shipyards known to be at or above the PEL. Medical surveillance includes a chest X-ray, a physical exam, spirometry (breathing) test and a questionnaire.
- Asbestos record-keeping: Records for asbestos exposure monitoring must be kept for 30 years, and worker medical surveillance records have to be kept for the entire length of their employment, plus 30 years. Training records must be kept for 1 year after employment ends.
- Workplace assessment: For each company covered by OSHA standards, the workplace or work area must be assessed to determine: 1.) If asbestos is present and 2.) If an employee’s work will disturb asbestos and generate airborne fibers. General industry, construction and shipyards have different standards, and each evaluation is different based on the workplace.
Other Asbestos Protections
In addition to OSHA’s guidelines, the EPA protects state and local employees who work in states without an OSHA-approved occupational safety and health plan. This is part of the Toxic Substances Control Act and regulates how employers in non-OSHA states should operate in asbestos exposure conditions.
States like New Jersey and New York, which have high laborer populations, also created their own regulations for asbestos exposure. Public Employees Occupational Safety and Health of New Jersey outlines specific asbestos limits and working conditions for New Jersey workers, as does the New York State Department of Health for laborers in the Big Apple.
While these guidelines and regulations help protect those working in construction, shipyards or other occupations at risk for asbestos exposure, they came too late for many.
Legal Help for Workers Exposed to Asbestos
Millions of American workers were exposed to asbestos without knowledge of its risks and have since developed mesothelioma or other types of cancer.
New York attorney Joseph P. Williams and the team at The Williams Law Firm are committed to helping asbestos exposure victims and their families get the compensation they need to cope with medical expenses and other damages. We offer free consultations to help you understand your legal options, and we don’t charge for our services until we recover on your behalf.