Steel mill workers operate in dirty, high-temperature environments to produce heavy metals to make buildings, bridges, cars, and much more. The steel mill is a heavy industrial plant that manufactures steel, which is an alloy of carbon and iron.
Steel Workers Fast Facts (BLS.gov)
- National Employment, 2018: 18,500
- Similar Occupations: Boilermakers, carpenters, masonry workers, assemblers and fabricators, welders, cutters, and solderers
- Previously Exposed: Yes
- Still Being Exposed: Yes
- Asbestos-Related Disease Risk: High
- States with Most Employment: Pennsylvania, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois
Working in steel mills has always been dangerous, and some of the dangers are not as obvious. Asbestos was common in steel mills as insulation from 1940 through the 1970s, many steel mill workers were exposed to asbestos while doing their difficult work. Even today, if they are using equipment or working in steel mills that were built before 1980, exposure to asbestos is still a risk.
Some of the common steel mill workers who were exposed to asbestos include:
- Pipefitter: Lies out, installs, maintains and repairs pipelines, fittings, and fixtures during plant construction and maintenance.
- Machinist: Sets up and operates machine tools and does layout, fitting, and assembly work.
- Boilermaker: Lies out, fabricates, assembles, erects and does repairs for structural, boiler and plate work. It also lays out, fabricates, assembles, and erects boilers.
- Welder: Welds, brazes, and cuts most types of metal.
- Blacksmith: Forges, hammer-welds and heat-treats iron and steel materials when plant equipment is constructed, maintained or repealed.
- Millwright: Inspects, repairs, replaces, installs, adjusts, and maintains mechanical equipment
- Bricklayer: Does masonry work in plant construction and maintenance.
Steel Workers Asbestos Exposure
No matter the exact work of the steel mill worker, exposure to asbestos usually happened because of direct handling of machinery, material, and equipment during the steel manufacturing process.
Asbestos insulation was often used in steel mill equipment, such as blast stoves, ovens, furnaces, rolling mills, tanks, cranes, boilers, molding boards, and steam pipes. Workers often inhaled asbestos fibers as they were working in the process of making steel. This included feeding vessels scrap metal by crane, controlling machinery to melt that scrap metal, and adding other metals so the necessary chemical composition was achieved.
As steel mill workers were working in the steel making process, fibers from the many heavy machines would get lodged in their lungs and could cause scarring and even mesothelioma. Workers in steel mills also often wore protective garments coated in asbestos, such as coats, leggings, gloves, aprons, face masks, and coveralls.
Steel mill workers also could be exposed to asbestos even if they were not involved in the steel making process. Building materials, such as bricks on hot tops, ceiling and floor tiles, and asbestos blankets used to cover ladles usually contained asbestos.
Scientific Studies on Steel Workers Asbestos Exposure
Clinical researchers have done several scientific studies that relate to asbestos in steel mills, such as studies done by William Blot, MD, which showed many cases of asbestosis in steelworkers.
Also, a study of steel mill workers in Belgium found a higher number of asbestos fibers in the bodies of maintenance and production workers.
The Mesothelioma Registry of the Province of Brescia from 1980 to the current day found 55 workers who worked at least five years in the steelmaking industry. There were a total of 289 cases of asbestos exposure. For eight of the people who worked in steel mills, lung tissue samples were taken for asbestos fiber analysis.
In the seven autopsies done, the asbestos fiber burden analysis showed between 260,000 and 11,000,000 fibers per gram of lung tissue.
Steel Workers Asbestos and Mesothelioma Lawsuits
A steel mill worker in Illinois won a $250 million verdict against US Steel. The man worked from 1950 to 1981 in Gary, Indiana and he was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 2001. The plant often used insulation containing asbestos as a fire retardant.
Some of the steelmaking companies that used asbestos in their facilities included AK Steel, USX Corporation, Porter Hayden Company, LTV Steel, Weirton Steel, and Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Corp.