Keith Shettler worked to install and retrofit duct systems in downtown buildings for more than 20 years, opening structures that had been closed off for decades.
“You could see the coal dust that was there when the steel mills were there," Shettler said, "to the asbestos that might be hidden behind all that put there years ago when asbestos was prevalent to put on job sites.”
Asbestos is a natural mineral, mined from the ground and it was used regularly as a binder in construction from floor and ceiling tiles to insulation. Its microscopic crystals float through the air and when they’re inhaled, they scar the lungs. Those scars can develop into respiratory diseases such as lung cancer or mesothelioma – which affects the cells that line the lungs.
Asbestos has affected so many sheet workers who fabricate and install duct systems in heating and air conditioning systems, that the Sheet Metal Workers International Union Started offering screenings in the 1980s to those who had been exposed to the material for more than 20 years.
About 150 active and retired workers are being screened this week at a pop-up clinic at the local union trade school just outside of Pittsburgh this week. The union provides screenings for active and retired workers every five years to look for effects from exposure to asbestos and other respiratory hazards.
Shettler is the coordinator of the school’s apprenticeship program. His father and uncles were also in the trade. He said it wasn’t until the 1970s that they knew asbestos was hazardous. He learned about it during his apprenticeship and later in his career, contractors would send employees to classes about the material.
“In the old days, it was to understand what asbestos was," he said. "Now, asbestos is in the forefront, unlike what it was years ago. We’ve kind of taken a back seat on it but it’s still out there."
Gary Batykefer is a retired sheet metal worker. He was also the director of the Sheet Metal Occupational Health Institute Trust – a branch of the international union – for 17 years. He pointed out the floor tiles in the trade school.
“This was installed in the 1970s and guaranteed there is asbestos in there,” he said.
The number of cases has decreased over the years because of heightened awareness. But building owners in the past would capsule the asbestos under a sealant, rather than remove it. Batykefer said that’s because it was cheaper. Now, in a renovation or retrofit project, workers will again be exposed to asbestos.
“For example, if they have to cut the pipes to get a new boiler in, that stuff is still there and is going to become airborne once the renovation project begins,” he said. “I don’t see this going away for quite some time.”
David Hinkamp is a physician with the University of Illinois in Chicago. He's contracted by the international union to oversee the screenings. Hinkamp said the material causes problems in the lungs and organ systems such as the gastrointestinal tract, including the stomach, intestines and colon. Part of the screening is a colon test, but Hinkamp said he also recommends a colonoscopy for workers who were exposed more than 20 years to screen for cancer.
“We know from every single sheet metal worker we discuss this with, whether they are old or young, they all have stories about being exposed. So even young people in the trade are running into it,” he said.
Asbestos is not completely banned in the United States, although the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has set limits of how long people can work around the material.
Hinkamp said fewer cases are being diagnosed altogether, but he recommends regular screenings for all workers who have been exposed.