What Is an Employer’s Duty Regarding Secondary Asbestos Exposure?
Employers may not have a legal duty to warn against secondary asbestos exposure but they do have a moral one.
When it comes to workplace asbestos exposure, there are two main dangers: occupational exposure to the worker and secondary exposure to the family of the worker.
First, there is the danger that the employee will inhale asbestos fibers during the course of their normal work activities. This could occur due to the employee working with asbestos-containing materials, such as frequently occurred in the shipbuilding and construction industries in past decades, or due to the employee working in an environment contaminated by aged or damaged asbestos-containing building materials. Secondly, there is the danger that the employee could carry asbestos dust home in their clothes and expose their family.
While the law clearly specifies the responsibility of the employer in the first case, responsibility in the second case has been the subject of some debate. Recently, an appeals court ruling appears to have reinforced an important precedent in the consideration of employer responsibility for secondary asbestos exposure.
The case revolved around a woman, Wanda L. Beckering, who alleged she had developed mesothelioma due to accumulated asbestos exposure related to her husband’s work as a machinist at Shell. From 1952 to 1992, she handled her husband’s work clothes, laundering them without knowledge that they contained hazardous asbestos dust. Beckering’s attorneys argued that since asbestos was a well-known hazard, and since it was well-established that asbestos could be carried home on a worker’s clothing, Shell should have reasonably known it was putting workers’ families at risk and therefore owed them a duty of care.
In a previous case, the court had already rejected this line of reasoning. However, Beckering’s attorneys thought the argument was worth raising again, arguing that the previous case had a narrow scope and applied only to family members of independent contractors. However, the judge in her case (and in the subsequent appeal) found no merit to this argument.
Instead, the court affirmed the previous idea that employers do not owe a duty of care to family members of workers. The reasoning was that imposing this duty of care could impose “limitless liability” on premises owners, making them responsible for any and everyone who might face secondary asbestos exposure due to contact with a worker.
Wondering How to Handle Asbestos in Your Workplace?
If you are concerned about asbestos-related liability at your workplace, H2 Environmental can help. We can not only facilitate asbestos removal, but also provide employee training in safe asbestos handling practices.