Prior to the 1980s, steel mill plants were full of products that contained asbestos. It was one of the top choice materials because the fibers were strong, cheap, readily available, and very heat resistant. Asbestos seemed to be exactly what steelworkers needed.
In the 1970s, however, the medical community made a startling connection between certain terminal illnesses and the asbestos used in steel mill plants. Medical researchers discovered that small asbestos particles were being inhaled and ingested, causing the body to attack the particles and create scar tissue—and tumors. Often, these tissues became malignant.
While asbestos became a regulated material soon after, the damage was already done. Anyone who worked in the steel mills prior to the 1980s most likely came into contact with asbestos. It was everywhere, from the furnaces used to make the steel parts, to the building’s insulation, to the packing material used to ship the parts to their destination. Everyone who worked in steel mills was at risk for developing an illness connected to asbestos, including asbestos lung cancer, asbestosis, and mesothelioma. These illnesses are very difficult to diagnose and treat. The best chance of survival is to get an early diagnosis.
Occupational Asbestos Exposure in Steel Mill Workers
Regardless of the type of steel mill worker, exposure to asbestos was usually the result of direct handling of machinery, equipment, and material in the process of manufacturing steel. It doesn’t matter what type of steel the steel mill worker dealt with, it’s likely they connected with asbestos fibers during their average work day. Places that asbestos was found included: boilers, ovens, cranes, steam pipes, insulation, hot blast stoves, rolling mills, protective clothing, furnaces, molding boards, and more.
When making steel products, oxygen is shot into the blast furnace in order to purify the ingredients. When this happens, the impurities formed slag. The slag is drained out of the furnace. Each time this happened on equipment that contained asbestos, it created the perfect opportunity for particles to break free of the equipment, float into the air, and eventually lodge in the steelworker’s lungs. Twenty to fifty years after this exposure, steel mill workers are still getting sick and discovering that the cause of illness is dues to occupational asbestos exposure.
Science, Asbestos, and Steel Mill Workers
Several studies have taken place over the years exploring the impact asbestos has had on steel mill workers. A study conducted in Belgium found extremely high levels of asbestos exposure among steel mill workers, particularly if the worker was on the production line or worked for the maintenance department. A study conducted by the Mesothelioma Registry of the Province of Brescia revealed that spending just 5 years in the steel mill industry greatly increased the risk of mesothelioma, lung cancer, or a related disease.
If you worked in a steel mill prior to the 1980s, it’s important that you talk to your doctor about potential asbestos exposure. With routine health screenings, your doctor can identify signs of mesothelioma or lung cancer before it advances to later stages when these diseases are much more difficult to manage.