a) A material of such low conductivity that the flow of current through it is negligible.
b) Insulating material, often glass or porcelain, in a unit form designed so as to support a charged conductor and electrically isolate it.
The definition of an insulator is fairly straightforward, whether you’re talking about the actual insulating material or the person that is responsible for installing those materials. Insulators – in both contexts – have been around for centuries, but the insulation we most closely relate to in the 20th and 21st centuries became essential around the time of the Industrial Revolution, when newfangled machinery needed to be insulated for reasons of temperature stabilization.
Of course, those same issues remain a concern today and it’s that need to protect workers and others from dangerous conditions that keeps our insulation contractors in business, performing tasks such as wrapping machinery of various types, pipes, or wires, or perhaps placing insulation in walls, floors, or ceilings.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there were about 52,000 employed insulation workers in the U.S. in 2012.1 The BLS notes that these insulators spend a lot of time standing, bending, and kneeling, often in confined spaces.
This work doesn’t come without risk. “Small particles from insulation materials, especially when sprayed, can irritate the eyes, skin, and lungs,” the bureau adds in its description of what insulation workers do.
While today’s spray insulation can certainly cause respiratory problems, insulation products of old often were much more dangerous because they contained asbestos, a toxic mineral that could also cause respiratory problems – very serious ones that may include mesothelioma cancer.
Prior to the mid-1970s, many insulation products contained asbestos. The mineral was used in these products because it is a good conductor of heat and its use could prevent burns, fires, and other catastrophes. Hence, it was used to wrap pipes in places like steel mills, refineries, and other industrial facilities, if often was found wound around electrical fires, and was even used in materials such as attic insulation for homes.
Some materials that might have been in an insulator’s cache of asbestos-containing products include:
• Boiler coverings
• Pipe coverings
• Pipe block
• Seals and tape
• Zonolite© insulation
• And many others!
Companies that may have manufactured some of these products include (but are not limited to):
• Keasbey & Mattison
• National Gypsum
• Fibreboard Corp
• W.R. Grace
Asbestosis, Mesothelioma, and Lung Cancer
insulation workers during the middle to later years of the 20th century were likely exposed to many of the materials mentioned above, manufactured by many of the companies listed here, including those who knew there products were toxic but did nothing to solve the dilemma. While there were reasonable substitutes for asbestos available for use, companies opted to continue using the toxic material because it was inexpensive and readily available.
The result has been generations of insulation workers who have developed lung-related problems, including asbestosis, mesothelioma, and various types of lung cancer. Today’s insulators are still at risk, especially when working on older properties – residential, commercial, and industrial.
Many of these manufacturers have been successfully sued in a court of law in regards to their negligence while others have declared bankruptcy and then set up asbestos trusts, offering compensation to those harmed. For more information, consult an experienced asbestos attorney if you or a family member has been sickened while working as an insulator.