Chemical plants are a major part of the American economy, producing shipments valued at nearly $555 billion each year. An estimated 13,500 facilities manufacture chemicals in the United States, and most of these are small companies with fewer than 500 employees. While chemical plants boost the local economy and offer valuable jobs, they can also do significant damage to the health of their employees.
Workers in chemical plants are responsible for a variety of tasks. Chemical engineers manufacture and prepare pharmaceuticals, synthetic rubbers and fibers, soaps, cleaning compounds, and more. Due to the wide scope of production in chemical plants, employees are tasked with handling many jobs. They might be responsible for delivery or processing, moving ingredients, machine operation, mixing chemical solutions, filling containers, or applying labels. Chemical equipment operators regularly use steam-jacketed kettles and reactor vessels. Technicians work on researching and developing new chemical products and processes. Chemists study the actual reactions and compositions of substances and mixes. Blending machine operators work to mix chemicals to create new solutions. Packing machine operators prepare products for shipment or storage.
Until the late 1970’s, chemical plants commonly used products and manufacturing equipment containing asbestos. This led to a high risk for asbestos cancers and mesothelioma among chemical plant workers. Today’s workers may face a lower risk, however, asbestos materials are still lingering in old buildings, equipment, and machinery.
Asbestos in Chemical Plants
There are three areas where asbestos is most frequently seen in chemical plants. First, the material was frequently used to build machinery and equipment. If your plant has old machines, it is likely to contain asbestos as an insulation component around pipes, valves, ovens, or radiators. Asbestos could be hiding in gaskets, grinders, burner pads, or mixers.
Asbestos is also commonly found within old buildings. The plant itself could expose you to the deadly material with asbestos hiding in molding, insulation, paint, cement, or counter tops. Some protective clothing can even contain asbestos.
Before the dangers of this material were fully understood, many chemical plants provided protective clothing to workers to prevent burns from chemical exposure. While the goal was to protect chemical plant workers, these aprons, coveralls, face masks, and gloves were often made of asbestos.
Workers in chemical plants face a number of occupational exposure hazards. Most plants do their best to protect their employees, however, because of their use of asbestos, they have unknowingly and recklessly risked the lives of many of those same employees.
While those employed in plants between 1930-1980 face a high risk of asbestos diseases, those workers who regularly repaired equipment or machinery face the highest threat. These jobs often caused small particles of asbestos to be released into the air. When inhaled, these particles can cause serious inflammation and scarring of the lungs and are the leading cause of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related cancers.
Because exposure in chemical plants was so high in the 1900s, there have been a number of lawsuits from former workers. One of the most controversial cases began when Thomas Brown sued Chevron Phillips Chemical Company and Union Carbide Corporation. Brown claimed that his time in the plant exposed him to asbestos. He later grew so sick that he required full-time oxygen and he was severely disabled. The jury awarded Brown $322 million in damages.
If you believe you may have been exposed to asbestos by working in a chemical plant, it’s important to alert your doctor. This information can help your doctor better monitor your health and properly diagnose any asbestos-related illnesses. If you are already suffering from mesothelioma or any other asbestos-related disease, consider consulting with a mesothelioma attorney about your legal options and how legal action may help you deal with the mounting medical bills associated with illness.