Westinghouse Electric’s History with Asbestos
Westinghouse Electric Company was founded in 1886 when George Westinghouse built the first generating plant to produce alternating electrical current. Today, the company is a global player in the nuclear energy industry.
Westinghouse manufactured asbestos products that included cables, gaskets, lightbulbs, welding rods and turbines. The company often used asbestos insulation around these products, and working with these items presented a high risk for asbestos exposure.
Westinghouse workers — especially those in lightbulb manufacturing and power plant construction and maintenance — were frequently exposed to airborne asbestos fibers during the manufacture of goods and the removal of insulation and wiring.
Westinghouse filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2017, citing billions of dollars in cost overruns at two nuclear power plants under construction in Georgia and South Carolina. The U.S. Bankruptcy Court approved its reorganization plan in 2018, leading to its purchase by Brookfield Business Partners.
The company did not develop an asbestos trust fund through its bankruptcy reorganization plan because asbestos litigation was not a contributing cause of its bankruptcy. The company continues to fight asbestos lawsuits in court.
Asbestos Litigation Involving Westinghouse Electric
Despite exposing thousands of workers to asbestos, Westinghouse had fewer than 3,000 asbestos claims filed against it by 1988. Given the myriad acquisitions over the years, Westinghouse Electric has been difficult to bring to the courtroom.
Many successful asbestos claims against Westinghouse have come in the form of workers’ compensation. Other successful claims against Westinghouse were filed against CBS Corp., which became a successor to Westinghouse as a result of a 1995 acquisition.
For example, in 2015, a former U.S. Navy officer settled with CBS amid trial. In the lawsuit, the Navy officer claimed he had developed peritoneal mesothelioma as a result of exposure to asbestos products made by Westinghouse Electric and other companies. Those products were installed on the ship where he served for 20 years.
In 2014, a Philadelphia jury awarded $7.25 million to the surviving family of Edward Merwitz, who died of mesothelioma following exposure to asbestos serving as a member of the U.S. Navy. Westinghouse Electric was among the defendants ruled responsible for exposing Merwitz to asbestos.
Not all claims filed against the company are successful. For example, in February 2021, a North Carolina court granted summary judgement to dismiss a claim filed against Westinghouse based on lack of sufficient evidence submitted by the plaintiff.
Westinghouse Electric’s Asbestos Products
Westinghouse Electric manufactured the following asbestos-containing products:
- Micarta board
- Welding rods
Westinghouse turbines are one of the most recognized sources of asbestos exposure among former shipyard workers and Navy crew members. These asbestos-laden turbines were found in engine rooms in many ships built during World War II and after.
Occupations at Risk of Exposure to Westinghouse Electric’s Asbestos Products
The following occupations were at risk of exposure to asbestos through Westinghouse Electric’s products:
- Construction workers
- Drywall workers
- Navy veterans
- Shipyard workers
- Turbine maintenance workers
- Westinghouse Electric employees
Asbestos products manufactured by Westinghouse exposed workers to asbestos in a number of industries, including those in the electrical, construction and shipbuilding industries.
Employees located at Westinghouse facilities were likely exposed to asbestos even without directly working with the material because once asbestos fibers became airborne, they easily travel to other parts of a plant.
If fibers were inhaled repeatedly, workers faced the risk of developing an asbestos-related disease such as mesothelioma, lung cancer or asbestosis.
Formerly owned by the Japanese conglomerate Toshiba, Westinghouse manufactures and supplies nuclear control technologies and commercial fuel products. The company also designs plants, helps bring new facilities online, and provides training, maintenance and engineering assistance.
By 1900, Westinghouse had grown to 50,000 employees. The company built the world’s fastest elevators for New York’s Rockefeller Center in 1933, and was instrumental in World War II-era inventions, including the manufacture of turbines for ships. Westinghouse made the first U.S.-designed jet engine and airborne radar, and even manufactured the video cameras astronauts used to document the first moon landing.
Westinghouse purchased CBS Broadcasting Inc. in 1995, then sold its defense electronics businesses a year later and bought Infinity Broadcasting. In the late 1990s, after changing its name to CBS Corp., Westinghouse sold its remaining industrial and commercial power businesses. British Nuclear Fuels plc, a British energy giant, subsequently acquired Westinghouse Electric.
BNFL sold Westinghouse Electric to Toshiba in 2006. It was acquired by Brookfield the year following its 2017 bankruptcy filing. The company continues to provide a range of nuclear power plant products and services across the globe.