Here’s a true story that’s going to knock you off your seat.
United Airlines used to house its World Headquarters and Executive Training Center (WHQ) in suburban Chicago in a building riddled with large amounts of asbestos (— and we’re saying that word “large” just for emphasis, since any amount of asbestos in a building is, really, large). They recently almost entirely moved their offices to downtown Chicago, likely in order to get out of the asbestos-ridden building.
But before they moved, United Airlines executed a handful of very big and very bad Asbestos No No’s, ultimately potentially exposing their employees to harmful asbestos fibers… and more than once.
Here are some of the biggest alleged No No’s:
- Failing to fully disclose details of events where asbestos may have been disturbed, therefore causing exposure to employees during renovation work. As in: witnesses have said that they occasionally saw “debris fall from the ceiling registers onto employees’ heads and onto employees’ desktops” over a period of several years.
- Failing to disclose their potential liability to shareholders in United Airlines’ Security and Exchange Commission (Sec) filings as required by law.
- Hiring outside contractors who performed improper asbestos abatement work in the classrooms where ramp-service employees, managers, pilots and flight attendants received training.
After so many years of having their offices in a building with “large” levels of potentially disturbed and therefore airborne asbestos, you would think United would do something quick and smart to address the problem, right? Apparently, they resorted to posting signs in some occasions. Yep, you read that right, United allegedly posted a sign inside the building warning employees that they should “avoid breathing airborne asbestos fibers,” admitting that airborne asbestos fibers posed a “cancer and lung disease hazard.”
The punch line being, you CAN NOT avoid breathing in airborne asbestos fibers if they are flying, microscopically, all around you! This is what we call #MissionImpossible.
The proper response to potential asbestos exposure involves using trained professional to remove the asbestos or avoiding the area with potential asbestos entirely. These are not some of many available responses; these are the only acceptable responses.
To post signs warning employees to not breath in airborne asbestos fibers? You’ve got it: They are suggesting the impossible!
Why? Because asbestos, when disturbed in a situation like renovation, repairs or just plain building damage over a period of time, becomes airborne and yet is completely invisible to the naked eye. There is no smell (like gas) or color or ANY way for ANYONE to see (and therefore avoid) asbestos. Once airborne, the tiny fibers can be inhaled or ingested. Over a long period of time, generally decades, asbestos fibers lodged in a person’s lungs or stomach can create an irritation that results in asbestos’ signature cancer: mesothelioma.
Bottom line: Prevention is the only true cure.