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HVAC systems account for about 40 percent to 60 percent of total energy use in the U.S. Commercial sector. Mechanics are responsible for testing, repairing and overhauling the complex ventilation systems to ensure they work properly and efficiently. Because HVAC systems are so prevalent, there is great demand for quality HVAC mechanics.
Jobsites for these mechanics are always different. HVAC systems exist on concrete slabs outside the home and business, on rooftops, in garages and in attics and other closed-in spaces. Hazards of each site also differ. Buildings constructed before 1980 are considered high-risk for asbestos exposure through multiple asbestos-containing products. These products are not hazardous as long as they are undisturbed. But sometimes repairs necessitate disturbing the insulation, drywall and shingles, for example, and that’s a potential danger.
Inhaling asbestos fibers can lead to life-threatening health problems. Asbestos exposure is the primary cause of mesothelioma, and it also can lay the groundwork for asbestos lung cancer and asbestosis. This diseases will not show up for decades after someone is exposed, and it’s possible HVAC mechanics could get sick and not understand the connection between their illness and their exposure years earlier.
A 2017 article in EC Pulmonary and Respiratory Medicine analyzed asbestosis deaths in the U.S. From 1970 to 2014. The data showed that HVAC mechanics are over four times more like to die of asbestosis than the general population.
HVAC Products and Locations HVAC Mechanics are exposed to different asbestos products such as:
- Thermal Insulation: Asbestos is commonly used for insulation purposes in or around many products including steam or water piping, boiler surfaces and furnace ducts, which are located in or near areas where heating, ventilation or air conditioning units are stored inside buildings.
- Building Materials: A variety of construction material used to build homes and public buildings where HVAC Mechanics work contain asbestos such as, siding, ceiling and floor tiles, walls, cement, firewall bricks, adhesives, pipe tape and joint compound.
Occupational Exposure for HVAC Mechanics
HVAC mechanics’ exposure to asbestos is largely the result of working directly in a multitude of residential and public buildings that were built with asbestos-containing materials and buildings that used HVAC units that contained asbestos.
Asbestos is recognized for its heat resistance, and prior to the 1980s, it was commonly used for insulation found in the thousands of buildings. As mechanics mostly work in indoor spaces where heating, ventilation and air conditioning units are stored, they work in proximity to a lot of products containing asbestos as insulation, including steam or water piping, boiler surfaces and furnace ducts.
Ducts are used in HVAC systems to deliver and remove air, and they are wrapped with asbestos-containing insulation. When old ductwork is cut, sanded, broken or disturbed in anyway, asbestos fibers can be released into the air and inhaled by workers. Once these
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fibers are inhaled, many are expelled, but some can become lodged in organ tissues and remain their throughout life. The accumulation of fibers can cause inflammation and scarring, which is what can leads to the development of asbestos-related illnesses.
HVAC mechanics also are exposed to asbestos during normal system maintenance. They must frequently change filters and check furnaces. When mechanics open compartments and panels to perform these tasks, they can disturb any asbestos that has settled in the space. Often, this debris also contains asbestos fibers.