Resources for Patients and their Families

Unions and Asbestos



In recent years, especially since the problems associated with asbestos in the workplace have come to light, trade unions have stood behind those individuals stricken with asbestos cancer disease, including mesothelioma. These unions have rallied for the rights of workers who were unknowingly exposed to asbestos on-the-job.

Throughout the United States and indeed the world, hundreds of labor and trade unions are in place to protect individuals who work in myriad industries, from steel workers to school teachers.

Unions have played a unique role in U.S. history. At times, they've had a volatile past, causing riots and angering the masses. Some individuals value their connection with their local or national trade union; others think the country would be better off with no such unions. Regardless of one's political opinion, however, history shows that unions have often times been the only support for wronged workers; eager to take up the cause for the underpaid, overworked, and otherwise maligned employee.

In recent years, especially since the problems of asbestos in the workplace have come to light, the trade union has stood behind those sickened with asbestos cancers, including mesothelioma, rallying for the rights of workers who were unknowingly exposed to asbestos on-the-job. For the most part, the banding together of union workers and their leaders has helped the cause and their support has resulted in larger monetary awards for individuals and their families who are touched by the legacy of asbestos use.

Union leaders have helped organize witnesses for court cases, have stepped forward to financially aid widows and children of those affected by asbestos-related diseases, and have fought against inadequate trust funds designed by mega-companies to compensate asbestos victims.

Overall, the role of the trade union in the world of asbestos litigation and compensation has become invaluable. Along with private individuals whose lives have been affected by mesothelioma cancer, members of U.S. trade unions are the activists who will make a difference in the fight against asbestos-related diseases.

Asbestos Cover Up

As early as the 1930s, executives at companies where asbestos was used daily were already covering up the fact that employees were being sickened and dying from asbestos-related diseases. They hid or destroyed memos about the dangers of asbestos, ignored doctor's reports, and quietly offered compensation to individuals affected by their daily work with the hazardous mineral, making them promise never to tell their co-workers about their disease.

Before long, labor and trade unions would step in and make asbestos one of their prime concerns, and a number of labor unions around the country would eventually assist in exposing the cover-ups that were so rampant in American industry. Though in many cases it took decades for unions to help achieve safer working conditions and fair compensation for those affected by asbestos-related diseases, union representatives and members were integral in making strides in a positive direction and in making their brothers worldwide understand the dangers of asbestos.

Early labor unions like the AFL and CIO (once two separate entities) and other later-formed unions such as the United Steel Workers and United Auto Workers made it their duty to inform their members of the hazards they faced when their jobs involved working with asbestos. They exposed secret memos from company officials and hired doctors to attest to the fact that asbestos exposure was one of the main causes of mesothelioma. Verifying what most factory owners and managers already knew but refused to reveal.

Unions encouraged workers to refuse to work in hazardous conditions with such high risk factors and were the impetus for huge changes in the asbestos industry. When no one else would take up the cause, labor unions did so.

With the power to reach tens of thousands of workers, unions throughout the world continue to fight for the rights of sufferers of asbestos-related diseases, especially in countries like Australia and the United Kingdom, where the mesothelioma rate is high but compensation is low. Though it may take several more years for these countries and others to admit that asbestos diseases are a serious concern, the unions will continue to help their members deal with the challenges of asbestos exposure.

Asbestos Legislation

Today some of the country's largest and most powerful trade and labor unions are making strides in the fight for fair compensation for those sickened by asbestos cancers like mesothelioma. Even international unions have jumped on the bandwagon, issuing statements about unfair compensation and taking up the cause for workers worldwide whose lives have been affected or cut short by unnecessary asbestos exposure.

How can a union help one of its members who has developed an asbestos-related disease? These days, many unions have specifically taken up the fight against unsatisfactory asbestos compensation and unfair asbestos legislation. Most unions, including the powerful AFL-CIO, are rallying against the formation of so-called "asbestos trust funds." These funds, proposed by the government and backed by large businesses with a vested interest in paying as little as possible to asbestos victims, are seldom adequately funded and union leaders recognize this fact.

The passing of such legislation, including the bill known as S. 852, is not in the best interest of the asbestos victim, union officials believe. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney proclaimed that the Fairness in Asbestos Injury Resolution Act would "deny fair and timely compensation to tens of thousands of asbestos victims." Other powerful unions, such as the United Steelworkers and the International Brotherhood of Electricians, have also voiced their loud opposition to such plans, which would also deprive asbestos victims of access to the courts.

Besides fighting against major asbestos legislation, local union representatives can also help asbestos-disease victims with smaller issues, such as deciphering difficulties with medical insurance coverage or helping victims find good legal representation. Asbestos disease victims who belong to a trade union should contact their union representative immediately when they learn of their diagnosis.

Union Workers and Mesothelioma Treatment

Unions have compiled information about the best places to receive treatment for mesothelioma cancer and other asbestos diseases, as well as information on the most reputable doctors in a particular area for treating this aggressive form of cancer.

Membership in a union can serve as a great advantage to asbestos cancer sufferers and their families as well as those who have been exposed to asbestos on the job, whether now or in the past. Unions, particularly in the last 30 years, have made great strides in addressing the issues surrounding asbestos exposure and because they are often times thousands strong, they can move mountains that otherwise could not be moved. Some of the ways in which unions can assist with asbestos concerns include:

Monitoring of Working Conditions

The union is a worker's best advocate for safe working conditions. A group of people banded together with one common cause can make much more of an impact than just one person. If you observe any asbestos violations that may put your health at risk, you should contact your union representative immediately.

Asbestos Screening

Throughout the country, unions have been integral in helping workers determine whether or not they've been affected by exposure to asbestos. To aid in diagnosis of asbestos diseases or disorders such as pleural plaques, asbestosis, or mesothelioma, unions often set up lung screenings for employees. Screenings (x-rays) are done by licensed doctors and each person screened will receive a report outlining the results of their test. Those doing the screening often come to the place of employment to do the tests so that they may screen many workers all at the same time.

Asbetsos Disease Treatment

Unions often compile information about the best places to receive treatment for mesothelioma cancer and other asbestos diseases, as well as information on the most reputable doctors in a particular area for treating this aggressive form of cancer. Unions may also keep mesothelioma patients informed as to current clinical trials that may be to their benefit.

Financial Assistance to Offset Treatment Costs

Unions can help those who've discovered they have an asbestos-related disease secure legal representation if they wish to file a lawsuit against the companies or individuals responsible for the exposure. Many unions can help you find a mesothelioma lawyer in their area who specializes in asbestos suits.

Union Workers at Risk

Because asbestos was so widely used for centuries, including the first three-quarters of the 20th century, literally millions of workers have been and remain at risk for developing asbestos cancer. In the majority of cases, these workers never knew that they were putting their lives on the line by working with this "miracle" mineral, which served as an insulator and fire proofing agent for thousands of products manufactured and used worldwide.

The material was ever present in the factories of America prior to 1980 and the use of asbestos was indeed looked upon as essential for many decades. Advocates of asbestos use promoted the fact that it was "protecting" workers, not harming them, even though many company executives already knew of the dangers of the toxic material but did little or nothing to protect workers.

Some industries and occupations were more affected than others and it has been the trade unions for these industries and workers that have rallied together to support those who were unknowingly exposed to asbestos. Unions representing the occupations listed below were instrumental in the fight against asbestos exposure in the workplace.

Auto Mechanics

For many years, brakes, brake pads and clutches used in automobiles contained asbestos. The material was included in these auto parts in order to avoid fires. Mechanics who changed or repaired these parts often breathed in asbestos dust. While regulations are now in place concerning the removal and disposal of asbestos dust in automotive repair and manufacture shops, asbestos use was largely unregulated until 1989. Mechanics who worked with asbestos automotive parts prior to this time likely were affected to varying degrees by asbestos exposure.

Boilermakers and Shipbuilders

Boilermakers were involved with the manufacturing, installation and repair of boilers. Because of their heat-producing capacity, boilers were usually insulated with asbestos, therefore exposing workers on a regular basis. Shipbuilders or “shipwrights” constructed ships and other sea-going vessels. Fire retardant asbestos products were commonplace on ships, along with heat insulation. Many shipbuilders maintained water and steam pipes, and boilers that provided heat on ships. In some cases, shipbuilders also maintained asbestos containing nuclear reactors.

Bricklayers and Masons

Bricklayers and Masons frequently worked with mortar and other compounds that contained asbestos. As bricklayers and masons repaired and reconstructed old bricks and walls in older homes and buildings, asbestos would become airborne, putting them at risk for exposure.


Painters were among the many trades working during the height of widespread asbestos usage and were frequently exposed to airborne asbestos particles during a normal work day. Paint itself does not contain asbestos but the products used in association with painting often contained the dangerous toxin. Sealants and compounds used with painting products did contain asbestos. In some cases to produce a fire-retardant sealant, many painters combined paint with asbestos-laden products.

Building and Construction Workers

Many workers in the construction industry were exposed to asbestos in the building of homes, factories, office buildings, and schools. For these dedicated and hardworking men and women, simply doing their jobs, working with common building and construction products, they faced an unhealthy asbestos exposure risk day in and day out. Most, if not all of these common building and construction products contained asbestos. Such common building and construction products included everything from ceiling and floor tiles to wallboard and drywall. Builders frequently cut, sanded and sawed materials made with asbestos causing asbestos particles to enter the air, which put them at risk to develop mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases in the future.


Carpenters worked with a large variety of asbestos containing materials including insulation, tiles, compounds, drywall, plaster and roofing shingles. Much of their work involved cutting and sanding these products and in that process, the asbestos fibers in them could become airborne making it easy for them to be inhaled. Even with proper protective clothing and it was difficult to avoid harmful asbestos exposure. The inhalation of asbestos was common on many construction sites, and the fibers clung to clothing as well. This put carpenter’s loved ones at home at risk for secondary asbestos exposure.


Those who worked as electricians in any number of industries - including shipyards, power plants, and steel mills - were exposed to the asbestos traditionally used as an insulator for wires. Not only did Electricians work in typical construction environments, many also worked side-by-side with boilermakers and shipbuilders on vessels. Integral in any construction site, electricians drilled holes into contaminated dry wall, ceiling or floor tiles and insulation. Other asbestos products that Electricians encountered included electrical cloth, paint mixed with heat retardant compounds and cement products. The dust created from their routine work, in many instances, contained asbestos that they may have unknowingly inhaled.


Engineers, particularly those working in shipyards, on ships, submarines and in boiler rooms were often exposed to airborne asbestos. Additionally, through their work on industrial, commercial and residential construction sites, many engineers were likely to come into direct contact with asbestos products including plaster, drywall, paint, insulation, ceiling and floor tiles and electrical wiring. As a result, engineers were exposed to health risks that increase their chances of developing mesothelioma, lung cancer and other asbestos-related cancers later in life.


Being exposed to asbestos while fighting fires in old buildings, both in cities and small towns, is an ongoing risk for our nation's firefighters. Today, firefighters are trained to use necessary safety precautions, but in the mid to late 1900’s the dangers of asbestos exposure were not widely publicized and appropriate precautions were not taken. After any fire or emergency, firefighters remained at risk for inhaling asbestos from the fibers that clung to their clothing and that hung in the air.

Heat and Frost Insulators and Asbestos Workers

Because asbestos has historically been used as an insulator, those whose job it was to insulate pipes, electrical lines, etc. were constantly exposed to the dangerous mineral. Insulators worked daily with materials that were installed to provide protection from temperature extremes. In many cases these materials were made with asbestos.

Iron Workers

Iron workers were susceptible to frequent direct exposure to asbestos products. Day in and day out they would work with slate board made from asbestos as well as insulation products. Iron Workers were likely to become inadvertently exposed to asbestos during the process of treating iron with fireproof paint or other asbestos products or while sanding, installing, smelting and drilling.


Laborers worked in a variety of settings where the use of asbestos-containing products was prevalent. Generally, a laborer may have worked in a variety of industries including foundries, construction sites, shipyards or factories.

Longshoremen, Boatmen and Maritime Workers

Working in and around ships and submarines subjected many of these union workers to hazardous asbestos exposure in highly concentrated quantities due to the tight quarters that they were confined to.

Mine Workers

Those who toiled in asbestos, vermiculite, or talc mines may have been exposed to large amounts of asbestos dust on a daily basis. Vermiculite is a natural and common mineral mined for its universal application for fireproofing. Direct contact with this mineral, especially in the mining process, releases dangerous asbestos dust putting those exposed at risk for developing mesothelioma.

Plumbers, Pipefitters and Steamfitters

Plumbers, pipefitters and steamfitters, the individuals who lay out, assemble, maintain and repair piping systems, worked in a number of different industries where they were exposed to asbestos. They were particularly busy in the shipyards of America prior to, during, and after World War II. Plumber and Steamfitter trade workers were frequently placed at risk of asbestos exposure as many plumbing, pipe and boiler systems contained parts that were made with asbestos. Sadly, these trade workers remain at risk to this day: working on and repairing old water and heating systems that may still contain asbestos components. Many buildings and homes, for example, still have asbestos compounds and fillers in the cracks and joints of pipes in older plumbing and heating systems. This creates an ongoing risk for developing mesothelioma if appropriate safety precautions are not taken.


Asbestos was one of the strongest and most durable materials available for use in roofing applications and construction projects putting roofers at risk for asbestos exposure. Many types of shingles, roofing materials, insulation and other compounds used by roofers were once made with asbestos to help strengthen them and make them fireproof. A roofers job involves sawing, laying and cutting shingles and using other asbestos containing products to install roofs. Handling and working with these materials created airborne asbestos fibers and those working in the area were susceptible to inhaling or ingesting them.

Sheet Metal Workers

Sheet Metal Workers are highly skilled trade workers that performed a variety of jobs ranging from the installation of HVAC systems, to performing roofing, siding, gutter and even plumbing work. They worked directly with products that were manufactured with asbestos including insulation, sheet metal, piping, and heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) units. In addition, sheet metal workers also worked with ductwork, electrical wiring and sheetrock that were asbestos containing. The various work environments that sheet metal workers may have worked in include foundries, project sites, shipyards and demolition. Sadly, like other union members, the development of asbestos-related diseases in sheet metal workers is common.

Steel Workers

Due to the high levels of heat found in steel plants, asbestos was used regularly. Decades ago, steel workers even wore protective clothing made from asbestos, including aprons, gloves, and even face masks. Steel workers were employed to work in extreme high heat environments. As a result both they and the equipment they worked with needed to be protected from the elements of extreme heat and fire.

Transportation Workers

Trains, buses, cars and planes all contained asbestos based materials that served to provide protection from intense heat due to friction. Union workers in this industry were needlessly exposed to airborne asbestos fibers as a result.

Utility Workers

Utility workers were exposed to asbestos containing insulation materials used to protect against extreme heat. Electric, gas and other utility workers were often victims of asbestos exposure because they worked in extreme high heat environments. These environments were constructed with or contained equipment that was manufactured with components that often contained asbestos materials that presented a significant exposure threat.

Mesothelioma News

January 12, 2018
New Brunswick, New Jersey

First Asbestos-Related Talcum Powder Lawsuit in New Jersey Begins Jury Selection

“Jury selection has begun for New Jersey’s first asbestos-related talcum powder lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson. Learn more about this case and related talcum powder lawsuits at”

January 04, 2018
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Study Shows Lake Mead Mice Became Sick from Asbestos

“A new study shows that even low doses of asbestos fibers found around the Lake Mead area make mice sick. Learn more about this and other recent medical information related to asbestos and mesothelioma at the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance.”