The Sheet Metal Institute has named the industry of sheet metal workers as one of the most diverse trades in the world. Those working in this industry are skilled workers who help in the construction of residential, industrial, and commercial buildings. They create things that last for generations and are designed to improve people’s quality of life.

What Do Sheet Metal Workers Do?

These professionals use sheet metal in air conditioning ducts, heating, ventilation, sidings, rain guttering, and roof systems. Additionally, they help to develop column wraps, handrails, outdoor signs, customized precision equipment, automobiles, restaurant equipment, and any other product that contains metal. They also work with fiberglass and plastic materials. Their skills are technical and they read plans in order to work out what type and how much of each material is needed. They then measure pieces before cutting, bending, and shaping them, attaching them together to finally create a single product. Once this has been done, they check whether the product is accurate, and they will make adjustments if necessary.

These professionals are found in a range of different industries, from research fields to shop floors. They help to develop patterns on a mathematical basis, shaping, bending, and cutting metal. They also work with solders, screws, rivets, bolts, and other types of specialized fastening devices. Additionally, they work with large equipment and power tools like punches, breaks, shears, crimping and edging machines, forming presses, grinders, and hammers. Last but not least, they create 3D drawings that can be used in Building Information Modeling (BIM), as well as welding various materials together.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are currently some 141,000 sheet metal workers employed across the country. Many of them work specifically in HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) industries in both private domestic properties and in commercial and industrial buildings. They measure indoor quality, manage energy, and perform repairs and servicing. It is here, unfortunately, that they are at significant risk of asbestos exposure.

Sheet Metal Workers and Asbestos Exposure

It is highly likely that sheet metal workers have been exposed to asbestos, particularly if they have been employed since the 1970s. In those days, there was no widespread knowledge of the toxicity of asbestos and how damaging it can be to overall health. As such, a lot of equipment that were built by sheet metal workers contained asbestos and various other toxic substances. Additionally, due to the way sheet metal work is performed, which means materials are rendered by force, asbestos was often disturbed, thereby causing the fibers to be airborne. Airborne asbestos particles are the most dangerous of all, as they can be ingested or inhaled, leading to mesothelioma and various other serious, often lethal, medical conditions.

Two of the most serious conditions associated with asbestos exposure are mesothelioma and asbestosis. Both of these conditions have very long latency periods. Usually, people do not develop any disease until between 10 and 50 years after exposure, with the average being around 40 years. As a result, we are now seeing a sudden rise in the number of sheet metal workers who have developed the conditions, as they were exposed during the 1970s.

A study has been conducted by the Sheet Metal Workers International Association and this found that 21% of sheet metal workers now had pleural scarring. Pleural scarring is often one of the early indicators of more serious diseases also developing. A second study did reveal that sheet metal workers employed after the 1980s had less risk of developing these conditions because of new regulations imposed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Another study looked at the exposure to asbestos in New York City and this found that sheet metal workers were at particular risk. This is also due to the fact that sprayed asbestos insulation was used right up to 1972, when it was finally banned. However, the buildings in which the insulation was sprayed continue to exist, which means that sheet metal workers continued to be at risk of exposure.

Different Asbestos Products Used in Sheet Metal Work

One of the biggest problems sheet metal workers have is that they work with so many products that may contain asbestos. While some manufacturers have come forward to admit that asbestos may be present in their products, others have not. As a result, it is possible that many more cases of exposure to asbestos in products that were not previously listed will soon start to come forward. A number of examples of common brands of products used by sheet metal workers is listed below.

  • Siding, shingles, and roofing: Carey, National Gypsum Gold Bond Asbestone, USG Roofing, and Ruberoid American Thatch.
  • Boiler coverings, adhesive, and cements: Celotex Corporation S&K Paper, Carey Asbestos Cement, National Gypsum Company Gold Bond Texture Paint, and Unarcoboard.

It is important to understand that the above list is by no means exhaustive. If you have work or worked in the sheet metal industry, it is important that you look into whether or not there is a chance that you have been exposed to asbestos. This in itself is not a death sentence, but it does mean that you should get frequent checks in order to have ample opportunities to access treatment should you start to develop a condition.

Sheet Metal Workers Are at Increased Risk of Lung Cancer, Mesothelioma, and Asbestosis

Unfortunately, the reality is that many sheet metal workers have been exposed to asbestos during their career and it is likely that many of them will come to develop asbestos-related illnesses soon. While research has shown that this is particularly true for those who worked in the industry before 1980, even they continue to be at risk. That is because while the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has now banned asbestos in full, a lot of the structures made by sheet metal workers before that blanket ban are still standing today, and they require repairs. Luckily, because of the increased awareness of the dangers of asbestos, warning labels are now added to any products or equipment that may contain asbestos, and workers are provided with the necessary safety equipment to avoid direct exposure.

That being said, it is anticipated that the cases of lung cancer, mesothelioma, and asbestos will still continue to rise for the next two decades, before finally slowing down. Of particular concern in sheet metal workers is that secondary exposure is very much possible. The asbestos fibers are likely to have been stuck to their clothing, which would have been washed by their wives, thereby exposing themselves and their children to asbestos as well, and they will need to be checked.