Boilermakers handle a wide range of responsibilities, from routine maintenance and operations to boiler repairs. Many boilermakers work in engine rooms, and during training, they learn a wide scope of skills including installation, pipefitting, and steamfitting. There are two main categories of workers in the boiler field. Boiler production teams assemble boiler machines in factories or install them on outside properties. Boiler operations workers supervise daily machinery use in engine rooms and clean, adjust, or repair boiler equipment as needed.
Working as a boilermaker is physically demanding, requiring heavy lifting and handling parts at high temperatures. Asbestos exposure is also a major risk, with many commercial boiler parts historically containing multiple forms of asbestos. This heat resistant material might be a smart choice for boiler productivity, but it can be incredibly dangerous for workers, leading to life-threatening cancer and mesothelioma.
Asbestos in Boilers
Asbestos has been used in boilers for many years and it can be found in gaskets, bearings, and pipe insulation. Many times, the asbestos material looks like a basic corrugated cardboard material, but it actually contains up to 90 percent asbestos. In some boiler rooms, slabs beneath the stove are made from asbestos cement. A coat of wax or rope containing asbestos is commonly found between steam lines. Industrial work sites including factories, power plants, military bases, ships, and schools all have had boilers constructed with asbestos. That’s why boilermakers face one of the highest risks for occupational asbestos exposure compared to all other professions.
With most boiler rooms confined to cramped spaces, even minor asbestos exposure has been hard to avoid for boilermakers. Improper ventilation only exacerbates the problem. A 2005 survey found that 163,000 boilers used in industrial and commercial settings within the United States were over 30 years old. This means that each of these boilers is likely still using asbestos parts and placing current workers at serious risk.
The Health Risks of Asbestos Exposure
A 2007 study from Wayne State University and the University of Michigan found a significant increase in asbestos related diseases among boiler workers after just a decade of work. The longer people worked in the boilermaker trade, the higher the rate of health complications. Among those with 20 years of experience in the trade, around 30 percent had lung abnormalities on scans and more than half had abnormal respiratory sounds.
Another independent study showed the intense exposure risk during common boilermaker tasks. When stripping boiler lagging, exposure levels were 4.5 more than scientists predicted. Disposing of removed boiler insulation also carried a huge risk of asbestos exposure. One of the most dangerous tasks was removing insulation, which unleashed high quantities of asbestos particles into the air. When these particles are inhaled, or ingested, it can lead to mesothelioma.
Lawsuits Involving Boilermakers Exposed to Asbestos
A number of lawsuits alleging occupational exposure to asbestos have been filed by boilermaker over the years. One of the most notable was in 2013 when a New York jury found that two boiler companies acted recklessly, leading to health complications for five workers. Unfortunately, two of the plaintiffs died before the case ever made it to trial. Ultimately, the jury awarded $190 million to the boiler workers.
Working with asbestos is an occupational hazard. While more is known about this dangerous material, it is still in use today, especially in older machinery. Those who work with older boilers should take precautions to reduce exposure to asbestos. In addition, individuals who have been in contact with asbestos should inform their doctor to ensure they are evaluated for asbestos-related illnesses.