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Asbestos remains a potent risk, decades after U.S. restrictions

November 2, 2017

Zurich is one of the few insurance providers offering Workers’ Compensation solutions for asbestos abatement contractors and general contractors.

Asbestos removal

Asbestos is widely recognized as a lethal contaminant and its use was greatly restricted by the U.S. beginning in the 1970s, but misperceptions persist. Most significantly, although American builders can no longer use it for most applications, that hasn’t removed the still-potent risks associated with asbestos in this new century.

Asbestos was used so widely, for so many years, it remains present in countless buildings and other structures still standing today ─ buildings whose renovation and repurposing requires its removal.

“It’s one of those problems that just doesn’t go away,” said Steven Goebner, Head of Environmental Contractors, North America Commercial Insurance - Construction. “Although asbestos use is greatly restricted, it’s still very prevalent in the environment even today. This issue will be with us for a long time.”

It’s easy to understand why it was so popular in the first place. Asbestos is an umbrella term for six different types of minerals that produce lightweight and incredibly strong fibers. Asbestos is fire-, heat- and chemical-resistant — all benefits in commercial and industrial settings. It was long considered ideal as an insulator in walls and ceilings, to cover and protect pipes and boilers, and to bolster soundproofing and roofing. Its use peaked after World War II.

Unfortunately, the deadly impact of asbestos exposure was discovered too late to help many. Asbestos not only is implicated as the source of most malignant mesothelioma (a rare cancer that can take from 20 to 40 years to detect and, once detected, has a survival rate of about one year) and other forms of cancer, it also is linked to increased risk of asbestosis (an inflammation of the lungs) and other health problems.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission banned use of asbestos in certain building materials in the late 1970s, but some subsequent bans didn’t arrive until the late 1980s. (Asbestos is still used in some products deemed to present minimal risk, such as crayons and some gardening materials.)1,2

Today, decades later, asbestos remains a problem that must be dealt with. Although asbestos isn’t a risk when it remains undisturbed, when these miniscule fibers are released into the air, they can present serious health hazards.

“There are a lot of areas where old buildings and warehouses are being converted into lofts and condos,” Goebner said. “Companies have to make sure when they’re doing rehab or renovation that they’re not releasing asbestos. If they’re not aware of the presence of asbestos, it can be a risk to employees and workers who are exposed to it.”

In fact, though it was assumed that deaths related to asbestos exposure would continue to decline as years passed, the CDC reported a disturbing uptick earlier this year.

“Although malignant mesothelioma deaths decreased in persons aged 35 to 64 years, the continuing occurrence of mesothelioma deaths among persons aged 55 and older suggests ongoing occupational and environmental exposures to asbestos fibers and other causative environmental management plans,” the CDC reported, despite regulatory actions by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency aimed at limiting asbestos exposure.2

Experienced asbestos abatement companies are typically the go-to source when asbestos is identified and targeted for removal. However, finding Workers’ Compensation policies for these firms can be challenging, Goebner noted. Zurich is one of the few insurance providers offering this coverage, he said.

“We want to bring awareness to brokers who have firms involved in asbestos abatement, and to the customers themselves, that Zurich offers coverage for these activities,” Goebner said. “There are really limited markets that brokers can go to, and it can be really difficult for them to place coverage. Mostly, it’s an appetite issue: Most companies will not even quote Workers’ Compensation coverage if you’re an asbestos abatement contractor. Zurich will. We have over 20 years writing coverage for asbestos abatement contractors. We have a lot of experience in this area. We, of course, also offer General Liability, Auto, Umbrella and Pollution to support this coverage.”

However, the need for this type of insurance is not limited to asbestos abatement firms. General contractors engaged in rebuilding or renovation may not even identify an asbestos risk until mid-project, Goebner said — or, worse, workers don’t realize that while they’re tearing down walls or ripping insulation off old pipes, they’re releasing asbestos into the atmosphere.

“The insurance industry has struggled with this coverage,” Goebner said. “Zurich offers solutions for brokers’ clients involved in this end of the industry.”

Goebner also emphasized that Zurich brings experience and insight not only as it applies to asbestos removal, but also to a host of other environmentally sensitive jobs, and can share that knowledge.

“Zurich can help customers develop tailored risk management solutions, both with the Workers’ Compensation and a full suite of pollution products in place,” Goebner said.

“The policies are designed to cover a range of activities, be it asbestos removal one day or mold removal another day. We offer coverage to the general contractor for just the GC contractor work and/or if they need to hire a subcontractor. It’s more of a rounding out of the account to cover them for various risks on their job sites.”

“Many standard carriers have reservations about this coverage because they don’t understand it,” Goebner said. “That is why Zurich’s experience is so valuable.”

1 “Asbestos Exposure and Cancer Risk.” National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health. 7 July 2017.
https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/substances/asbestos/asbestos-fact-sheet
2 Mazurek, Jacek M. et al. “Malignant Mesothelioma Mortality - United States, 1999-2015.” CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. 3 March 2017.
https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/66/wr/mm6608a3.htm?s_cid=mm6608a3_w

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