Aerospace workers, including aeronautical engineers, had a vital role in researching, developing and making various flight vehicles in the 20th century. Many of these workers were exposed to hazardous levels of asbestos in a variety of aerospace applications. Aerospace workers who were active in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, in particular, could be at risk of developing mesothelioma.
Aerospace Worker Fast Facts (BLS.gov)
- National employment: 67,200
- Similar Occupations: Aerospace engineering and operations technicians, mechanical engineers, materials engineers
- Previously Exposed: Yes
- Still Being Exposed: Yes
- Asbestos-Related Disease Risk: Moderate
- States with the Highest Employment: California, Texas, Washington
Aerospace workers and aeronautical engineers are highly trained professionals that work in building and maintaining many types of aircraft and spacecraft. Ever since air travel started at the beginning of the 20th century, aero engineers have worked with highly advanced machines and products used to make them. Some of the products they used contained asbestos.
Asbestos was a vital part of aircraft design and construction beginning in the early 1900s when aeronautical workers realized it had superior aviation properties. Manufacturers provided many asbestos products to the aircraft industry even though the health risks of asbestos were known. Despite warnings, engineers continued to use asbestos-containing materials in airplanes, and later, in spacecraft.
Asbestos was still standard in aerospace manufacturing into the 1970s and 1980s.
Aerospace Workers Asbestos Exposure
Throughout the 1900s, most air and spacecraft had asbestos used to some degree. Working with many parts, machines, and manufacturing products that had asbestos in them exposed many aerospace workers to dangerous levels of the toxic substance. Some aerospace workers were directly exposed to asbestos, while others suffered secondhand exposure.
Every aerospace and aeronautical engineering area had some risk of asbestos exposure, including:
- Design engineers: These workers had a lower risk of exposure than researchers who often operated and tested aircraft.
- Manufacturing engineers: Designing and operating complex manufacturing systems put many aerospace workers at moderate risk of asbestos exposure during assembly in factories.
- Maintenance aerospace workers: Professionals doing aircraft and spacecraft maintenance had the most risk of asbestos exposure as they were taking apart and repairing parts that contained asbestos.
Some of the aircraft that exposed aerospace workers and aero engineers to high levels of asbestos were:
- Jet transport airplanes
- Military fighter and interceptor planes
- Heavy bombers
- MIssiles and guidance systems
- Commercial air transport vehicles
Asbestos also was used often in air and spacecraft construction; it is lightweight, durable and has high insulation value. Asbestos also resists fire, so it is the ideal solution to protect extremely hot machines laden with fuel.
Aerospace engineers often chose asbestos as the ideal material for many temperature and noise-sensitive purposes. They also used asbestos for many friction surfaces.
Some of the asbestos-containing products used in aerospace and aeronautical applications were:
- Brake lining where the friction created very high temperatures
- Insulation to control the noise around cockpits and compartments for passengers
- Fire-resistant coating for hydraulics and electrical lines
- Soundproofing for transmission and engines
By the early 1990s, the many health risks of asbestos were known, but years of direct and indirect asbestos exposure took a heavy toll on many aerospace workers. Some of them ended up getting mesothelioma decades after asbestos exposure.
Scientific Studies on Aerospace Workers Asbestos Exposure
There have been some studies that showed the connection between aerospace work and asbestos exposure. There has been a particularly strong link between aircraft maintenance and mesothelioma. (NIH.gov). This study showed heavy asbestos exposure occurred to aeronautical and aerospace workers during light aircraft brake replacement.
Aerospace Workers Asbestos and Mesothelioma Lawsuits
There have been a few verdicts in favor of aerospace workers who filed mesothelioma lawsuits against manufacturers of asbestos-containing products after they developed mesothelioma. One of them was an $18.5 million verdict for an aerospace worker in California after the jury found the company was responsible for his asbestos exposure.