Modern buildings use a number of different systems to support the comfort of the people inside them and to manage the environment for industrial settings. Heating and cooling systems are an especially important in maintaining the right environment within the buildings we live and work in.
As with many parts of modern life, unfortunately, the history of the heating, ventilation and cooling (HVAC) systems around us is also a legacy of asbestos use. As a result, the work that ensures comfort and air quality for others also often exposes HVAC workers to a dangerous carcinogen.
HVAC workers in our community
Many people in our state work in the heating, ventilation and cooling industry. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated in 2021 that more than 6,000 people in the state of Washington worked in heating, air conditioning and refrigeration-related occupations. In Oregon, the number totaled more than 3,000.
HVAC workers in the Pacific Northwest may be members of HVAC-specific unions. One local union focused on HVAC work is the Washington Air Conditioning Contractors Association.
They may also be part of other unions related to the industry. For example, some may hold membership in the Sheet Metal Workers Local Union 66 or other unions that oversee the metal work commonly employed in producing and installing these systems. HVAC mechanics may be part of the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipefitting Industry of the United States and Canada (UA) through chapters like UA Local 290, United Association Local 32 and UA Association Local 26.
Why might work as a HVAC worker expose someone to asbestos?
Starting in the early 1900s, the heat resistance and strength of asbestos fibers led to its use in a wide variety of applications, including throughout HVAC systems. As a result, many different heating and cooling system components contained this hazardous material, including:
- Adhesives and joint compound
- The lining of furnaces
- Insulation around ductwork, piping, boilers and heat registers
- Steam and water pipes
- Pipe tape
Handling, transporting and installing systems using these materials could easily release asbestos fibers into the air. Even now that asbestos is no longer used in the manufacturing of these components, it is still present in some older homes to this day. Repairing these deteriorating systems may also lead to exposure.
In addition to asbestos-containing materials used in HVAC systems, asbestos was a part of many home components that workers had to cut or drill into when installing or repairing heating and cooling systems. Drywall, ceiling tiles, insulation and many other construction materials in older houses could all contain asbestos.
What impact could asbestos exposure have on an HVAC worker?
Asbestos exposure has long been a severe risk for workers that install and maintain heating and cooling systems. One 1994 study by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration found that repairing HVAC systems and lighting potentially exposed between 39,000 and 60,000 workers each year to asbestos.
Inhaling these fibers can lead to severe illnesses over time, including cancers like mesothelioma. While these conditions may take years or even decades to appear, a diagnosis of asbestos-related disease is often life-changing for workers and their families.
Thankfully, HVAC workers and others exposed to asbestos on the job do not have to face these challenges alone. It is possible to fight for justice and to receive compensation after workplace asbestos exposure.