Chemical plants are industrial processing facilities where many chemicals are blended and manufactured in large quantities. Chemical plant workers produce products for many industries, such as pharmaceuticals, medical devices, rubber and artificial synthetic fibers, soap, cleaning compounds, and toilet preparation manufacturing. (Asbestos.com)
Chemical Plant Workers Fast Facts (BLS.gov)
- National Employment, 2018: 30,290
- Similar Occupations: Water and wastewater treatment plant and system operators, hazardous materials removal workers, power plant operators, materials engineers, environmental scientists and specialists
- Previously Exposed: Yes
- Still Being Exposed: Yes
- Asbestos-Related Disease Risk: Medium
Chemical plants contribute in significant ways to the US economy, but they also can lead to health problems for some workers. Chemical plant workers who were employed from the 1930s to the 1970s in these plants were often exposed to asbestos, which was commonly used because asbestos has strong chemical-resistant properties. Workers today in chemical plants are at much lower risk for exposure. But if you work in a building that was constructed before the 1980s, it still could expose you to higher levels of asbestos.
Workers in chemical plants were exposed to asbestos in several ways:
- Equipment and machinery: Asbestos is outstanding for heat and fire-resistant properties, but it also resists chemical reactions. So it was an important insulation component in chemical plant machines and equipment including pipes, pumps, valves, boilers, furnaces, ovens, gaskets, mixers, and grinders.
- Building materials: Asbestos was used in many chemical plant building materials such as paint films, sealants, molding compounds, countertops, block primers, and elastomers.
- Protective clothing: Asbestos was used to protect workers’ bodies from heat, fire, and chemical burns.
Chemical Plant Workers Asbestos Exposure
Chemical plant workers who repaired and maintained machinery and equipment were at the greatest risk for asbestos exposure. They would be required to cut, remove and replace asbestos insulation every day. During this dangerous process, asbestos fibers would be released into the air and inhaled by anyone nearby. The accumulation of these dangerous fibers over months and years could lead to mesothelioma and other dangerous asbestos-related diseases.
Even managers or other people who worked in areas where repairs were being done could be exposed to asbestos. Sometimes a worker would be exposed to asbestos when they did small repairs, rather than having a repairman do it, such as sealing a pipe with asbestos insulation. Workers could even be exposed if they only brushed against a pipe with asbestos insulation on it.
Asbestos gaskets were also used to stop leaks between surfaces in plants. During regular gasket removal, mechanics and workers could be exposed to asbestos fibers.
Asbestos also was used all the time during the construction of chemical plants until the 1980s. Asbestos might be added to the concrete as a lubricant, which would allow concrete to be pumped through hoses during construction. Cement blocks are a major part of building chemical plants, which usually contained asbestos. Any worker who was exposed to damaged building materials could have been exposed to asbestos.
Before the 1970s, asbestos was put into plastics and chemicals as a reinforcing agent or filler. Asbestos was often added to fireproofing sprays and molding compounds. It also was used in many chemicals for sealants and insulation.
Workers usually wore protective garments coated with asbestos, such as gloves, aprons, coveralls, and facemasks to prevent them from being burned.
Scientific Studies on Chemical Plant Workers Asbestos Exposure
A British Medical Journal study in 2015 found that asbestos-related deaths in Belgian chemical plant workers from 2001 to 2009 were three times more likely to die from mesothelioma than the overall population.
Another study in the 1970s looked at several groups of chemical plant workers. Chest x-rays were taken, and they found lung abnormalities caused by asbestos in some workers. Almost 60% of 185 maintenance workers examined had symptoms of asbestos-related damage.
Chemical Plant Workers Asbestos and Mesothelioma Lawsuits
A former chemical plant worker named Thomas Brown sued Chevron Phillips Chemical Company and Union Carbide Corporation after he was exposed to asbestos for years. He was diagnosed with asbestosis and required 24-hour oxygen to survive. He won $32 million in damages. The case was thrown out on technical reasons and still is being litigated today.
These companies have been involved in lawsuits for exposing chemical plant workers to asbestos: Chevron Phillips Chemical Co., Dow Chemical Co., DuPont, Durez Corporation, General Electric Company, Hill Brothers Chemical, Hooker Chemical Plant, Monsanto Chemical Plant, Rogers Corporation, Rostone Inc., Union Carbide Corporation and Westinghouse Corporation.