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For a time in the late 1980s, I removed asbestos while on leave from Carnegie Mellon, to pay for school. I worked several months in the trade before I moved on but ever since, I’ve wondered how that work affected my health. After all, greater people than me have been harmed by “AB,” as we workers called it back when. Actor Steve McQueen died from mesothelioma at age 50.

I’m not sure how McQueen got the disease, though some have said it's believed he got it from the asbestos fireproof racecar suits he wore. But the fact is, asbestosis and mesothelioma are time bombs. People who are affected by asbestos get lung scarring and sometimes eventually develop cancer. The clock is ticking from the time of first exposure.

One Delaware worker who was harmed from working around asbestos has learned about the legal ticking clock, through the courts. That former Getty Oil Refinery employee, Paul DaBaldo Jr., worked from 1967 through 2001 at the refinery. He didn’t know the clock was ticking on how long he had to file a lawsuit for injuries from asbestos exposure.

DaBaldo’s first chest x-ray in 1992 revealed “bilateral calcified pleural plaques suspicious for asbestosis exposure.” Not until 2007, though, didDaBaldo get an unequivocal “asbestosis” diagnosis from a doctor, the plaintiff contends in his lawsuit. In May 2009, he filed a personal injury claim in Superior Court in Delaware against URS.

But the statute of limitations to sue for asbestosis had expired, a Delaware court believed when it recently threw out the case. Subsequently DaBaldo recently was given another chance, after having the lower court’s decision overturned.

I’ve covered court hearings regarding corporate liability for asbestos, long after removing the stuff. And I was a cigarette smoker for more than 20 years. So to think that I may have irreparably harmed my health through my choice of work and my bad habits, is unsettling.

In that regard, I was like many other construction workers, who have a higher proportion of negative health behaviors, according to some sources.

Professional Engineer Ron Prichard, P.E., PhD., in an article for International Risk Management Institute (IRMI), says the high cost of accidents and lost productivity for business due to substance abuse data shows substance abusers have accidents at a rate 3.6 times normal, which leads to higher costs.

“In addition, substance abusers strain the benefit system,” Prichard says “Research has shown that drug users are 5 times more likely to file workers compensation claims, 3 times more likely to file health claims, and use sick leave at a rate 3 times higher than the average worker.”

I have no idea if DaBaldo ever smoked or drank, and I don’t blame him. I am just saying there’s a known connection between construction workers and substance abuse. And clearly, addictive behavior can compound any work injury.

The older you get, it’s natural to wonder sometimes how many years you have left. It’s also easy to be in denial, to not think about that persistent cough or recurring pain. It’s easy to figure it will pass.

We all engage in denial, whether it’s about the safety (or lack of safety) of our workplace or about our health, it’s human nature to sometimes ignore the obvious.

When the denial is concerning your health and the issue is asbestos exposure, the clock is ticking from the start. By that I mean that lung scarring and other problems can result from nearly any degree of exposure. How they affect the worker over the long term depends upon many factors, but the one factor that never changes is that the clock is always ticking. The time to understand any illness you might have or might get, is now.

Billions of dollars have been set aside by companies to pay settlements for injuries caused by asbestos exposure.  But companies cannot offer injured workers more time. That’s something everyone must take control of and make the most of, before it runs out.