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Asbestos is the leading cause of deadly occupational cancer worldwide, and without a federal ban, American workers are left at risk. Mesothelioma and other asbestos-caused cancers and diseases are incurable, but they are 100% preventable if exposure is prevented.

This is why it is crucial that those working with and around asbestos—whether professionally or in renovation and construction projects—become educated on how to best protect themselves and those working around them. Given the widespread risk, each person working with or around this material responsible for the effort to end the onslaught of needless asbestos-caused deaths. 

Because inhalation of asbestos fibers is the major pathway of causing disease, many protective measures rely on using respiratory protective equipment (RPE) when working around asbestos and contaminated materials. RPE protects the wearer from hazardous substances in the air before they can breathe them in. 

But preventing exposure with RPE takes much more than just throwing a mask on or instructing employees to wear them. First, it is important to select the correct RPE for the type of contamination risk at hand. Proper storage, maintenance and repair of RPE must also be followed, including changing the filter in accordance with supplier recommendations. And, crucially, the workers relying on RPE must be educated on proper usage and empowered as partners in prevention.

The Dangers of Improper RPE Usage

Too often, RPE is incorrectly selected, used, maintained or stored. Though RPE can greatly reduce exposure risk, these failures reduce the effectiveness of the equipment and can cause workers to breathe in the toxin they’re trying to avoid. 

One of the most common problems that occurs with RPEs is determining and maintaining the proper fit. Fit testing must occur when the RPE is initially distributed, and it must be redone annually and whenever a physical change has occurred that would affect the fit, like change in facial hair. A worker’s mustache, beard or even sideburns can prevent the RPE from properly fitting and protecting that person. Moreover, asbestos fibers can get trapped in the facial hair to be inhaled later if one does not properly decontaminate when they’re done working.

In the underbelly of the U.S. Capitol building, workers learned this the hard way. In 2012, workers removed asbestos from the steam tunnels that run underneath the Capitol. They were warned of the asbestos risk and provided with RPE to protect themselves—but the crucial fit tests never took place. One of those workers, John T., wore the mask thinking it would keep him safe, but he had facial hair that prevented the respirator from working properly. He has since developed pleural disease, a thickening of the lining around the lungs and heart caused by asbestos exposure. This disease is incurable, and John will have to remain on an aggressive barrage of medications for the rest of his life to manage it as best he can. 

Even if an employer takes all of the necessary steps to ensure the RPE provided to their employees are in good condition and properly fitted, if workers aren’t fully trained on using the masks and aware of the real risk level, all the protective equipment in the world won’t help. 

Les Skramstad is an example of this problem. Les was an employee of the W.B. Grace asbestos mine in Libby, Montana—often considered the epicenter of the asbestos tragedy in America. W.B. Grace provided their miners with masks but failed to educate them about the dangers of asbestos. 

Because they didn’t know the dangers they were up against, Les and his fellow miners didn’t realize the lifesaving importance of the protective equipment they were asked to wear. Working down in those mines in the summer, they faced suffocating heat, and Les couldn’t breathe with the mask on, so he took it off — not realizing that doing so would leave him fighting for breath decades down the line. Les ultimately developed asbestosis and later mesothelioma. Tragically, Les died in 2007. Before his death, he became a fierce advocate for the asbestos victim community, fighting for honest communication about workplace dangers between companies and their employees.

RPE Is Just One Piece of the Puzzle 

Since the risks of asbestos are so poorly understood, in a way, RPE can provide a false sense of security. Folks working with asbestos feel protected by the masks and too often fail to realize the other exposure pathways that they may not be addressing. 

The asbestos risk doesn’t just blow away once the dust of the worksite settles. The invisible fibers cling to clothes, boots, hair and skin. This necessitates using RPE in conjunction with other protective equipment and practices to most fully prevent exposure, as well as putting into place and following careful post-shift decontamination protocols. 

When these measures aren’t taken, workers take the asbestos risk home with them, exposing their spouses and children. This was the case with Mavis and Ray Nye

Mavis and Ray got married in 1960 while Ray was working around asbestos at the Chatham dockyards in England. When Mavis would wash his work clothes, she would shake them out first, sending plumes of dust into the air around her. Forty years later, Mavis was diagnosed with mesothelioma as a result of this “deadly chore,” and she continues to battle the incurable disease to this day.

Ensuring the correct use of RPEs and decontamination methods help to prevent cases of second-hand exposure like Mavis’s.

Building a Culture of Prevention

What John, Les and Mavis’s stories all have in common is that they show why it takes so much more than equipment to truly protect against asbestos exposure. In addition to the RPEs themselves, there must be a stronger emphasis on training, enforcement and education to ensure full compliance while using RPE as well as the implementation of other protective equipment and prevention protocols. 

Careful risk assessments by employers—including educating workers of their risk—is the necessary first step and one required by federal health and safety authorities in the U.S. This should include installing visual cues in the areas where RPE and other protective equipment should be worn, as well as setting up a system by which workers can request new RPE when their’s becomes dirty or requires a refitting. 

Once a full exposure prevention plan is developed, it is key to empower workers with knowledge and leadership to make them partners in the plan. The more people who are focused on enforcement and sharing knowledge, the higher the chance of full compliance. 

Acting as a prevention plan steward doesn’t have to be difficult. One of the best ways to encourage workers to use RPE correctly is to focus on positive reinforcement. For example, when a prevention plan steward sees someone correctly using RPE and following other protocols, they should take a moment to praise that person by pointing out their success to fellow workers and reinforce why it’s so commendable. 

Making it clear what proper prevention looks like through this method—especially when it becomes a common refrain made by multiple stewards—ensures that workers will have a clear understanding of how to do their job “the right way.” 

It is fortunate that RPE and decades of research are available to guide workers in how to best protect themselves, but these resources must be put to good use and done so properly. With invisible risks like asbestos, sharing knowledge and taking accountability for the safety of those around us is paramount. 

As the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO), says and practices: “Hear Asbestos. Think Prevention.” 

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