Boiler room employees and furnace makers are highly trained professionals. They sometimes focus on a specific element of boilers and furnaces, such as pipefitting, steam fitting, or installations. Others focus on a variety of different techniques that enable them to work in every part of the trade. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, boiler room and furnace makers are classed as ‘stationary engineers and boiler operators’. There are currently some 39,100 of these professionals in the country, who handle every element of boilers and furnaces. An important element of this is asbestos exposure, as many past specialists in this field have developed asbestos-related illnesses.

Asbestos in Boilers and Furnaces

Because of the fire retardant and insulating properties of asbestos, it was often used in boilers and furnaces, and particularly in sectional boilers. Some actually contained raw asbestos, although most had asbestos elements in their paste backing, bearings, and gaskets. The majority of heated components will be insulated with asbestos, and particularly block insulation. This means that the tube banks and furnace walls of boilers were surrounded by an inch thick slab of asbestos. It was usually mixed with calcium silicate and magnesium carbonate, but between 6% and 15% of the slab was pure asbestos.

Meanwhile, internal pipes were also surrounded by asbestos air insulation. It was similar to corrugated cardboard and this enabled workers to wrap it around boiler pipes’ curves. Some of these contained between 75% and 90% chrysotile asbestos. Meanwhile, asbestos cement covered the doors of stoves, as well as the economizers, flanges, and hand holes. In many cases, it was covered with flexible asbestos paper. Furthermore, paraffin wax that contained asbestos was used to place between the steam lines. The wax would melt, leaving a layer of asbestos fibers in its place.

Once upon a time, this was how all boiler rooms were constructed. As such, people working in power plants, factories, refineries, and other industrial worksites were at particular risk of exposure. Similarly, they were found in military installations, ships, and schools. Anyone who worked in these industries may have had significant exposure.

Boiler Room and Furnace Makers and Exposure

It is a known fact that one of the highest occupational risks for asbestos exposure is found in boiler work. This was highlighted in an Australian report on occupational exposure. Between 1986 and 1995, 94 individuals who were diagnosed with mesothelioma were involved in boiler work, and similar statistics exist in other countries.

There have been numerous lawsuits in relation to industrial asbestos exposure, and in many of these it has been highlighted that asbestos boilers commonly lead to significant exposure. This was because asbestos was handled daily, and also because engineers would often have to crumble asbestos, thus releasing fibers into the air. Oftentimes, boiler and furnace workers would cut half rounds of asbestos by hand in order to insulate pipes, releasing asbestos dust in the process. Similarly, those who fixed broken boilers would also come directly in contact with asbestos. In some cases, they would even have to insert raw asbestos and loose asbestos fibers into the boilers by hand.

Considering the fact that boiler rooms were small, enclosed spaces with very poor ventilation, it is no surprise that so many people developed asbestos-related illnesses due to their prolonged, heavy exposure. Energy and Environmental Analysis, Inc. released a report in 2005 that showed some 163,000 commercial and industrial boilers in this country are at least 30 years old, which means that they are likely to contain disturbed asbestos.

Studies in Asbestos and Boiler and Furnace Rooms

A number of studies have been undertaken to examine the dangers of exposure for boiler makers and furnace technicians. One was completed in 2007 by Wayne State University and the University of Michigan. They demonstrated that those who had worked in the trade for 10 years or more were more likely to suffer from dyspnea, interstitial fibrosis, and pleural plaques. Additionally, the longer they worked in the field, the more likely they were to have complications. In fact, 30% of those with 20 years of experience or more had pleural abnormalities. Additionally, 50% had audible respiratory noises.

Another study looked specifically at Norwegian boiler welders. The investigators looked at rates of lung cancer and mesothelioma, comparing boiler welder population to the general population. The study was small, and the researchers had expected to find 37.5 cases of lung cancer and 1.1 cases of mesothelioma. In fact, they found 50 and three respectively.

A South African company looked into the amount of exposure common during boiler-delagging. It was found that the exposure was actually 4.5 times higher than expected. Additionally, the exposure for those who disposed of old boilers was 2.3 times higher than they expected. Various other studies have confirmed similar results.

Boiler Room and Furnace Maker Lawsuits

Because there is such a grave occupational risk for boiler room and furnace makers, there have been numerous Mesothelioma lawsuits against employers, entire industries, and asbestos manufacturers. These include:

  1. A lawsuit against Weil-McLain. This suit started against 12 individual boiler manufacturers, 11 of which settled the law suit. Weil-McLain did not, however, despite its asbestos products not carrying warning labels. The employee who sued them was exposed around 25 times during his 38 years of service. He was awarded $2,368,000 in damages.
  2. Another lawsuit was filed by an individual who had worked with Owens and Keene products, which included the Kaylo insulation, which is now known to be laden with asbestos. The person in question worked on pipe and duct insulation for 22 years and had to eventually retire due to health complications. He was awarded $878,500.
  3. Another individual was diagnosed with mesothelioma after working at military locations. The jury decided that 70% of the damages he sustained were caused by John Crane, Inc. and their products. He was awarded $22.7 million.
  4. The widow of a Navy veteran who died of mesothelioma, filed a suit because her late husband had worked as a boiler repair shop employee for four years at the Long Beach Naval Shipyard and during his work on the U.S.S. Klondike, where he was responsible for Foster Wheeler boilers, none of which contained warning labels. He had also not been instructed to wear breathing apparatus. The amount of damages awarded were kept secret.
  5. Five tradesmen were awarded $190 million after a jury found Cleaver-Brooks and Burnham negligent and reckless in the production of their boilers. The verdict was awarded in New York and is the largest of its kind. Out of the five tradesmen, two died before the trial finished.

Which Boilers Contain Asbestos?

There have been numerous rules and regulations on the use of asbestos since the 1970s. While some manufacturers immediately came forward and worked on replacing their boilers, others did not. As such, a number of manufacturers are now known to have used asbestos, but it is feared that some continue to operate simply because they have not been caught or come forward yet. The following manufacturers have indicated that their boilers contained asbestos:

  • Asbestos Corporation Limited
  • Weil-McLain
  • Cleaver-Brooks Company
  • The Babcock & Wilcox Company
  • Crown Boiler Company
  • Burnham Corporation

Unfortunately, the 37,600 boiler operators and stationary engineers who were employed all over the country continue to be at risk of developing asbestos-related illnesses. This is also due to the fact that the diseases have a very long latency period, ranging from 10 to 50 years. What is worrisome is that some people are still being exposed to asbestos, which means further cases are likely to be brought forward. This is despite widespread knowledge that the risk of developing an asbestos-related illness is very high. The states that employ the most people who are at risk are New York, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, and Texas.