Kaiser Aluminum, an aluminum refining and product manufacturing company, was founded by Henry J. Kaiser in 1946. Starting up from two reduction facilities and an aluminum rolling mill, Kaiser Aluminum expanded to include mining and manufacturing processes and the distribution of aluminum, a system known as vertical integration.
As part of its integration model, Kaiser Aluminum acquired bauxite mines and set up refineries where the mined bauxite was transformed into alumina, which was crafted into aluminum and used to fabricate aluminum products. Because asbestos is resistant to high temperatures, the company used it to line vessels exposed to extreme heat during the refining process.
During the 1950s, Kaiser produced asbestos-containing materials for the construction industry and the military. Most notably, it produced asbestos fireboard for U.S. Navy ships.
In recent years, Kaiser Aluminum’s basic structure and direction have undergone revisions. As a result, the company stopped its bauxite and alumina operations and has focused on producing high-grade aluminum product manufacturing such as aluminum components for the aerospace industry.
Kaiser Aluminum now owns 12 fabricating plants throughout the United States and Canada, and yields 400 to 500 million pounds of aluminum annually. In 2005, the company reported revenues of $1.1 billion and employed more than 2,000 people.
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Kaiser Aluminum and its subsidiaries manufactured asbestos-containing products from the 1950s to the late 1970s. Many military veterans, mechanics, factory workers, tradesmen and consumers exposed to these products developed severe diseases such as mesothelioma and asbestosis. As a result, by 2001 the company faced more than 100,000 asbestos-related claims.
To handle the financial strain, Kaiser filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2002. When the company emerged from bankruptcy in 2006, the Kaiser Aluminum & Chemical Corporation Asbestos Personal Injury Trust was established. The trust was formed to process, liquidate and pay all valid asbestos personal injury claims for which Kaiser has legal responsibility. As of 2008, the trust has paid $116 million in claims.
Kaiser was among several companies that paid settlements to Henry and Geraldine Barabin following their 2007 mesothelioma lawsuit. Henry Barabin developed mesothelioma following years of work for a refinery and paper mill. In the lawsuit, Barabin said he was exposed to both amphibole asbestos (from insulation) and chrysotile asbestos (from working around dryer felts). Kaiser was one of at least 17 companies that settled the case, and Kaiser agreed to a payout of $39,675. Barabin died in March 2012.
Kaiser exposed workers to asbestos because it used asbestos during refining and fabricating operations until the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classified asbestos as a carcinogen and issued a code of regulations restricting its use in the late 1970s.
During the process of refining alumina from bauxite, the materials must be heated to considerable temperatures, and the reduction vessels need an insulating agent to coat the external walls and isolate the heat. Asbestos, with its heat- and fire-retardant qualities and its low cost and durability, was an ideal choice for containing the heat involved in the reduction processes and for preventing overheating.
Through a variety of heat resistance and electricity isolation applications, asbestos also found its way into the actual fabrication of aluminum products manufactured for the aerospace and automotive industries. The use of asbestos in aluminum production and fabrication affected workers in other industries as well.
Kaiser manufactured these products until the late 1970s.
Matt Mauney is an award-winning journalist with nearly a decade of professional writing experience. He joined Asbestos.com in 2016, and he spends much of his time reading, analyzing and reporting on mesothelioma research articles to ensure people in the mesothelioma community know the latest medical advancements. Prior to joining Asbestos.com, Matt was a reporter at the Orlando Sentinel. Matt also edits some of the pages on the website.
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