Special Topics in Safety Management

Trial Spotlights Deadly Toll of Asbestos

The high-profile prosecution of chemical manufacturer W.R. Grace and three of its executives underscored the dangers that asbestos poses to workers, communities, and the environment.

After a hotly contested trial, a jury last month returned a not guilty verdict against W.R. Grace and three of its executives.

The company and executives had been charged with criminal conspiracy in a case involving asbestos contamination in Libby, Montana, where Grace had mined and processed vermiculite, a potting soil containing asbestos, between 1963 and 1990.

According to the U.S. prosecutor in the case, some 200 people in Libby, many of them former Grace employees, have already died from exposure to the asbestos. Another 1,000 to 2,000 reportedly are at risk of asbestos-related diseases.

The prosecutor told jurors that the risk of dying from asbestosis for Libby residents is 40 to 80 times the normal rate.

Not Off the Hook

Despite the acquittal on the conspiracy charge, Grace has already settled another lawsuit by the federal government brought under the Superfund act. Grace will pay out $250 million in cleanup costs to deal with asbestos contamination in Libby.

The Environmental Protection Agency has been overseeing the cleanup of the community for some time now at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars. Healthcare services have also been provided for ailing Libby residents.

According to EPA investigators, asbestos was spread through the town not only by mining and processing operations but also by workers who brought asbestos fibers home from work on their clothes and contaminated their houses, putting their families at risk of asbestos-related illness as well.

Some Libby residents also used vermiculite in their gardens, and vermiculite was used to cover the running tracks at the local school.

BLR’s OSHA Training System offers a completely prewritten, affordable program to handle asbestos safety training as well as dozens of other mandated training needs. Try it at no cost. Get the details.

Asbestos Hazards

Asbestos is a mineral composed of silicon, oxygen, hydrogen, and various metals. Unlike most minerals, which turn into dust particles when crushed, asbestos breaks up into fine fibers that are too small to be seen by the human eye.

In manufacturing, fibers were often mixed with materials to bind them together, producing asbestos-containing materials. The asbestos that caused the contamination in Libby was combined with soil to make vermiculite.

Asbestos-containing materials were common, especially for construction, until the health hazards of asbestos became better understood. Most manufacturing involving asbestos ceased back in the late 1980s.

The asbestos mined in Libby was a particularly dangerous type of asbestos called “tremolite.”

Asbestos fibers can easily be inhaled. Once inside the body, fibers can cause scarring of the lungs (asbestosis) or cancers such as mesothelioma, which affects the chest lining.

Because of the health risks associated with asbestos, OSHA developed the asbestos standard (29 CFR 1910.1001), which requires employers to provide safety and health training for employees who might be exposed to asbestos.

Try OSHA Training System for a complete solution to your mandated training needs. You can do so at no cost or risk. Read more.

In tomorrow’s Safety Daily Advisor we’ll talk about OSHA’s training requirements and the other precautions employers need to take to protect employees from asbestos-related illness.
Other Recent Articles on Safety Management
Getting the Most out of National Safety Month
10 Safety Orientation ‘Must-Haves’
The Tragic Cost of Failed Safety Orientation
You’re Training, but Are They Learning?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.