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The Role of Occupational Health and Safety in Protecting Workers from Asbestos Exposure

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) was created by the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 to ensure that working conditions remain safe and healthy for the millions of employees in the United States. The law and the organization have put in place and strictly enforce many standards to ensure safe working conditions for workers and also provide training, education, outreach, and assistance to workers. Workers in various industries may, unknowingly, be exposed to asbestos fibers during their day-to-day work or activities that disturb the asbestos-containing materials. When it comes to protecting workers from the harm of being exposed to asbestos, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and OSHA together work towards establishing regulatory responsibility.(123)

OSHA functions under the Occupation Safety and Health Act to protect and ensure the health and safety of workers who might have been exposed to asbestos at their workplace. On the other hand, the EPA functions under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) to protect both state and local employees who have been exposed to asbestos from those states where is no OSHA-approved state occupational safety and health authority or plan.(4)

Read on to find out the role of occupational health and safety in protecting workers from exposure to asbestos.

What Exactly is Asbestos?

Asbestos is a term used to refer to a family of minerals that are produced naturally as big masses of fiber. Asbestos fibers have a wide range of textures – from being coarse to silky.

Asbestos is used in many industries owing to its super flexibility, strength, resistance to heat and chemicals, and excellent frictional properties. There are typically six main recognized types of asbestos including:(5)

  • Actinolite
  • Amosite
  • Chrysotile
  • Anthophyllite
  • Tremolite
  • Crocidolite

Out of these six types, chrysotile is most commonly used in nearly 90 percent of all the products that contain asbestos.(678)

Asbestos is most commonly used in the construction industry to provide insulation, in the manufacturing of building products, textiles, and friction materials. Many manufactured products that contain asbestos include asbestos cement sheets and pipes, floor and ceiling tiles, taping and patching compounds, as well as reinforcing fillers that are used in paints and sealants. According to the estimates of OSHA, there are over 500,000 employees who work directly with asbestos products. Millions more get exposed to asbestos because of working near or due to the presence of asbestos near the working areas. In the automobile industry also, thousands of workers who work with or around insulation materials or friction products like brake linings or clutch facings are known to be exposed to asbestos. Workers in manufacturing, construction, or renovation sites or those who carry out telecommunications installation and servicing may be getting exposed to asbestos fibers that get released from building insulation without even being aware of it.(91011)

And exposure is not just limited to these workers. Exposure to asbestos also occurs in the families of these workers. Asbestos fibers may easily get carried into the home by sticking to the workers’ clothing, bodies, or bags. Asbestos-related diseases have been affecting workers’ families also for many decades due to such types of indirect exposure.(1213)

What are the Health Hazards of Asbestos?

Asbestos present in products, such as insulation materials or brake linings, is not a direct risk to workers’ health if the product is not disturbed or damaged in a manner that causes the free fibers of asbestos to get released into the air. If this happens, then the asbestos fibers can easily break into tiny particles or dust. Asbestos fibers in this form are easy to get inhaled or swallowed. These fibers are actually like glass slivers. These can easily get trapped in the tissues of the lungs (through inhalation) and digestive system (if swallowed). Once these fibers have worked their way into the various tissues of the body, where they can remain stuck for an indefinite period of time. Over time, these fibers cause inflammation in the affected area, giving rise to cancerous cells.

Exposure to asbestos fibers can cause many types of severe diseases. Some of these include:

  • Asbestosis: This disease occurs after many years of being exposed to asbestos. The inhaled fibers eventually leave the lungs in a permanently scarred condition. This causes an emphysema-like situation, known as asbestosis. Some of the early signs of this disease include persistent coughing, shortness of breath, and spreading or broadening of the fingertips. You may not notice these symptoms for many years. However, if you should notice any such warning sign, you should immediately consult a doctor. In the later stages of the disease, you may hear a dry, crackling sound coming from the lungs when you inhale. Apart from this, there might be a bluish discoloration of the skin and lining of the tongue and mouth.(1415)
  • Lung Cancer: After being exposed to asbestos, many workers end up developing lung cancer. This process does not happen overnight. It may take as long as nearly 20 to 30 years to develop. Experts believe that lung cancer causes nearly 20 percent of all deaths in workers who are exposed to asbestos. The exact degree of lung cancer depends on the duration of exposure, age, and length of the asbestos-related work. Early warning signs of lung cancer may include coughing, chest pain, shortness of breath, and coughing up of bloody sputum towards the later stages.(16, 17)
  • Mesothelioma: Mesothelioma is a cancerous tumor that occurs in the membrane that lines the abdomen, chest, heart, or the testicles. Mesothelioma is one of the common diseases caused by asbestos exposure. Early warning signs and symptoms of mesothelioma may include shortness of breath, chest pain, or abdominal pain, depending on which part of the body the disease develops in the body. Mesothelioma accounts for nearly ten percent of all deaths in asbestos workers.(1819)

Asbestos is today a well-recognized health hazard by the EPA and OSHA. It is therefore highly regulated by such organizations.(20)

What Role Does OSHA play in Reducing the Risk of Asbestos Exposure in Workers?

Exposure of workers to asbestos hazards comes under the regulatory realm of OSHA standards. This includes standards for the construction industry, shipyard industry, and general industries as well. The OSHA standards are put in place to reduce the risk to workers. These standards make it mandatory for employers to provide personal exposure monitoring to determine the actual risk. Employers are also required to provide hazard awareness training to workers in operations where there can be any type of potential asbestos exposure.

Airborne asbestos levels should also never go beyond the legal worker exposure limits.(21) While there is no safe level of exposure to asbestos for any type of asbestos fiber, but it is also not necessary that everyone who gets exposed to asbestos fibers ends up developing asbestos-related diseases. At the same time, asbestos exposure that is as short in duration as just a couple of days has also been known to cause mesothelioma in workers.(222324)

Every occupational exposure to asbestos can become a cause of disease and every occupational exposure to asbestos fibers can contribute to the overall risk of developing an asbestos-related illness.(25) In places where there is known exposure to asbestos, employers are strictly required by law to provide the utmost protection to workers by establishing well-regulated areas, controlling certain types of work practices, and putting in place controls that will reduce the airborne levels of asbestos. The employer is also required to ensure that the exposure level is reduced with the use of administrative controls. They need to also provide personal protective equipment to the workers while ensuring medical monitoring of the employees if and when the legal limits and regulated exposure times get exceeded.

As mentioned above, the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 regulates the exposure of workers to asbestos and also guarantees all workers in the United States the right to have a safe and healthy working place. Individuals who work directly with asbestos products or in areas where there is a potential for airborne asbestos exposure are protected by the OSHA Asbestos Standard. If this is the case, the employer needs to provide the following to ensure the safety of all workers:(2627)

  • Provide and use engineering controls
  • Have work practice procedures in place
  • Have monitoring systems in place
  • Have regular medical surveillance procedures
  • Provide personal protective equipment to workers
  • Hold adequate training sessions related to safety for workers
  • Provide sufficient informative materials related to the hazards of asbestos exposure and how to prevent it.

At the same time, facility and building owners also need to check the presence, location, and if needed, quantity of any asbestos-containing and ‘presumed’ asbestos-containing materials. They also need to maintain strict records related to such materials. This information has to be provided to all the employers in that facility/building and from the employers, it should be released to the workers. Additionally, building and facility owners need to maintain the monitoring data for the entire duration of their ownership and if the building/facility is sold, then this data will be transferred to the new owners. Warning signs and labels should also be posted at any work locations where there are asbestos-containing or presumed asbestos-containing materials.

Occupational Health and Safety Standards to Protect Workers from Asbestos Exposure

Some of the occupational health and safety standards and controls put in place to protect workers from asbestos exposure are as follows:

  • Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL) for Asbestos: The permissible exposure limit for asbestos has been capped at 0.1 fiber per cubic centimeter of air during an eight-hour time-weighted average (TWA). The excursion limit (EL) is of 1.0 asbestos fibers per cubic centimeter during a 30-minute period. The employer needs to ensure that no worker is exposed to these set limits.
  • Assessment of Workplaces: The proper assessment of workplaces is covered by the OSHA Standards and has to be completed in order to find out if there is any asbestos present and if the work being done has the potential of releasing airborne fibers of asbestos.
  • Monitoring of Workers: Constant monitoring is required to check for any asbestos exposure and if any is detected, whether it is at or above the permissible exposure limit or the excursion limit for workers who are or who might be exposed to the asbestos. The frequency of this monitoring depends on the exact nature and classification of work and exposure. For example, the shipyard and construction OSHA standards have an assessment and monitoring system in place by a certified and competent person.
  • Exposure above the PEL or EL: In cases where the exposure is potentially above the PEL or EL, employers have to use correct work practices and engineering controls to the extent possible to ensure that the exposure level is kept at or below the PEL and EL. In cases where feasible engineering controls and work practices are not sufficient to ensure the protection of the workers at the exposure limits, employers are required to decrease the chances of exposure to the lowest achievable level, and then also supplement this with correct respiratory protection in an attempt to meet the requirements of the PEL. Again, the shipyard and construction standards require certain control methods that depend on the exact work classification. On the other hand, the general industry standard also has specific controls in place for any type of clutch and brake repair work.
  • Proper Communication and Demarcation of Hazard: Employers have to place proper hazard communication and demarcation with the use of warning signs in the local languages in the areas where exposure to asbestos above the PEL or EL may take place. There should be no smoking, drinking, or eating taking place in these areas and workers must wear proper personal protective equipment at all times to prevent exposure.
  • Decontamination and Lunch Areas: There should be separate lunch and decontamination areas where proper hygiene practices are followed, especially for workers who have been exposed above the PEL in order to avoid further contamination.
  • Training of Workers: Training should be provided for all workers depending on the work classification. Training should be provided to all the workers who might be exposed at or above the PEL before they begin work, and this training should be repeated at regular intervals throughout the year. Employers have to ensure that the workers understand the training, hence the language should be chosen accordingly. Even workers who carry out housekeeping operations in these places also must be provided with asbestos awareness training.
  • Medical Surveillance: The requirements for medical surveillance of workers differ depending on the industry. Medical surveillance has to be provided for those workers who participate in certain types of work where exposure is a high risk or those who experience exposure to asbestos at or above the PEL, especially in shipyards and in construction industries.
  • Maintenance of Records: All records have to be maintained and kept on all the exposure monitoring for asbestos for a period of at least 30 years. Worker medical surveillance records have to be kept for the entire duration of employment and 30 years over that. Training records have to be kept for at least a year after the last date of employment of the worker.


Despite the many regulations put in place to ensure the safety and health of workers, every year there are many people who get diagnosed with asbestos-related illnesses such as lung cancer or mesothelioma. It is the duty of every worker to ensure that their employer provides a safe and healthy environment for them to work in. Being aware of the many hazards associated with asbestos exposure and proper training can go a long way in preventing and reducing exposure.


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Team PainAssist
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Team PainAssist, Pain Assist Inc. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:March 9, 2023

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