Written By: Aaron Munz,
Last modified: September 21, 2021
Quick Facts
  • National Employment, 2021:
    137,110
  • Similar Occupations:
    Industrial Factory Workers, Assembly Plant Workers
  • Previously Exposed:
    Yes
  • Still Being Exposed:
    Yes
  • Asbestos-Related Disease Risk:
    Extremely High
  • States with Highest Employment:
    Virginia, Massachusetts, Florida, District of Columbia, Washington

How Are Shipyard Workers Exposed to Asbestos?

Asbestos was once considered a critical element in the shipbuilding industry, especially in the military, because of its ability to resist heat and prevent fires that would be disastrous for a vessel at sea.

Shipyards along U.S. coasts have long histories of asbestos exposure and a legacy of former employees developing mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases because of that exposure. Court dockets, especially those in New York and California, are full of examples of former shipyard workers who contracted an asbestos disease and traced their exposure back to one or more shipyards.

Asbestos exposure in shipyards involved loading and unloading asbestos-containing materials and parts from receiving facilities onto vessels. The crates, pallets and wrapping materials used to transport the products harbored asbestos fibers from the contents of the crates. Just delivering parts for the ship and transporting them to where they would be installed led to exposure. Anyone off-loading from a ship or delivering a load aboard the ship was at risk.

Those working in the construction of ships, or doing regular maintenance, repairs, overhauls and decommissions, were at the greatest risk of asbestos exposure. Boiler workers were exposed while maintaining and repairing asbestos insulation, and laggers and pipe fitters were exposed installing and repairing damaged pipe insulation. Depending upon the shipyard, workers performed their tasks on battleships, aircraft carriers, submarines, cruisers, destroyers and auxiliary vessels.

Anyone who worked in shipyards between World War II and the Vietnam War was exposed to asbestos at work. It can take anywhere from 10 to 50 years after exposure before symptoms of mesothelioma cancer appear. Several shipyards across the U.S. have extensive histories of documented asbestos exposure, including Bremerton Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, Charleston Naval Shipyard, Todd Shipyards and Kaiser Shipbuilding Company.

Asbestos Products Associated with Shipyard Workers

Until the 1970s, the U.S. Navy authorized the use of more than 300 asbestos-containing products for ship construction. Asbestos was ideal for any part located near high temperatures, and any area where there was potential for corrosion. It was hard to find a place on a ship where asbestos wasn’t used – and that meant most everyone in the shipbuilding industry was put at risk.

Asbestos was used throughout boiler rooms, engine rooms and sleeping quarters. 

Flaking white coating inside ship's hull
The white material depicted here is deteriorating spray-on asbestos insulation that was applied to the hull of a large sea vessel.
Adhesives

Different types of asbestos adhesives were used to create seals and make repairs throughout ships.

Bedding

The filler used to stuff mattresses contained asbestos as a fireproofing material. Shipyard workers who built sleeping quarters were exposed to this material.

Cables

Asbestos was added to cables, including wire cables, to make them stronger and salt-resistant.

Vintage ad showing warehouse
This Johns Manville ad promotes an asbestos cement product known as Transite as an ideal building material for shipyards.
Cement

Asbestos cement was a popular material in the construction of shipyards. Corrugated asbestos sheets were used to construct the walls and roofs of shipyard buildings.

Hydraulic Assemblies

Hydraulic assemblies and pumps contained asbestos insulation and packing material.

Two layers of insulation on a pipe
Amosite asbestos-containing pipe insulation was common on vessels because it resists marine corrosion.
Insulation

Spray-on asbestos insulation and pipe wrap covering were the two most common forms of asbestos insulation on ships. Insulation was also found in the form of block insulation and packing material used on pumps, valves and boilers.

Gaskets and Valves

Amosite asbestos was the fiber of choice for marine gaskets and valves because it withstood salt corrosion.

Ship valve coated in white
Spray-on asbestos insulation was applied to pipes, valves, hulls and other parts of vessels.
Paint and Coatings

Asbestos paint and coatings covered ships because they provided an effective layer of fireproofing. Deck covering material contained asbestos for its strength, added texture and fire resistance.

Panels

Heat paneling containing asbestos was used throughout ships to create fireproof walls and barriers.

Pumps

Asbestos insulation was common in and around pumps, and it had to be repaired frequently because of wear and tear.

Textiles

Asbestos-containing textiles and fabrics were used to make sails for ships and fireproof blankets that were used in shipyards to put out fires and prevent burns.

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Manufacturers of Products Shipyard Workers Use

Asbestos product manufacturers have attempted to shift the blame for the asbestos exposure at shipyards to the U.S. Navy and its policies that dictated specifications. However, the Navy is protected from asbestos lawsuits, which left asbestos manufacturers liable for the diseases their products caused in shipyard workers.

  • Bendix Corp.: Bendix brand brake pads, linings and blocks were used in shipyards on heavy machinery that constructed vessels.
  • Burnham Holdings: Burnham made asbestos pipe insulation that was used in shipyards when installing or repairing pipes.
  • Foster Wheeler: Foster made marine-grade boilers that shipyard workers installed onto Navy vessels and commercial ships.
  • GAF Corporation: Formerly Ruberoid Company, GAF was contracted by the Navy to insulate ships with various asbestos products, including heat panels, pipe coverings, boiler jackets and asbestos cement.
  • Johns Manville: JM produced products for the Navy and private industries that were used in the repair of ships, including Transite asbestos cement, block insulation, heat panels, weatherproofing coatings and adhesives.
  • Keasbey & Mattison: K&M made corrugated asbestos cement that was used in the construction of shipyards. It also sold asbestos textiles used to make fireproof sails.
  • Pryor Giggey Co.: This company made asbestos insulation that was used on marine-grade boilers.

Civilian shipyards have also been involved in asbestos litigation. Shipyard owners and operators have been held liable for using asbestos products that caused shipyard workers to develop mesothelioma. They include:

  • Caddell Dry Dock
  • Consolidated Steel
  • General Dynamics NASSCO
  • GMD Shipyard
  • Moore Dry Dock Company
  • New York Shipbuilding Corporation
  • Rough & Ready Island Ship Repair
  • San Francisco Drydock
  • Southwest Marine

Shipyard Workers and Mesothelioma

Any time microscopic asbestos fibers are disturbed and become airborne, they become more dangerous. Shipyard workers unknowingly inhale the fibers, which get trapped in tissues and cause inflammation that can lead to cancer. Studies have shown that military veterans have been hit especially hard by asbestos exposure in shipyards, and the Navy was the branch of service most affected.

  • A study published in December 2018 in the International Journal of Radiation Biology analyzed mesothelioma incidence in 114,000 veterans involved in nuclear weapons testing between 1945 and 1962. Researchers found the highest rates of mesothelioma were in Navy veterans who handled asbestos products.
  • An Italian study published in 2018 in Environmental Health reported significantly increased rates of death caused by mesothelioma, lung cancer, laryngeal cancer and asbestosis among shipyard workers in Genoa, Italy.
  • One 2017 Spanish study analyzed the lung tissue of 20 former shipyard workers with asbestos-related diseases and found they had a higher percent of amosite asbestos compared to other occupations that used asbestos products. Amosite is known for its resistance to marine corrosion, and it was widely used as a form of pipe insulation on ships.
  • A 2017 article in Archives of Environmental & Occupational Health reported asbestos-related deaths among people who worked at the United States Coast Guard Yard in Baltimore from 1950 to 1964. Those with a moderate level of cumulative asbestos exposure were almost four times more likely to die from mesothelioma than the general population. Those with a high level of exposure were over seven times more likely to die of mesothelioma.
  • A study published in 2008 by the Ulster Medical Society showed that shipyard workers carried a mortality rate from asbestosis that was 16 times higher than other occupations. A large percentage of those deaths were concentrated along the East and West coasts of the United States, where much of the shipbuilding was done.

Shipyard workers also unintentionally brought asbestos fibers home on their clothes. This secondary asbestos exposure led to cases of mesothelioma among family members.

It is important to find a doctor specializing in mesothelioma to ensure you receive the best care. Specialists are at the forefront of innovative treatments for mesothelioma, and they work at the nation’s best cancer centers.

Compensation for Exposed Shipyard Workers

Countless shipyard workers have received compensation for the illnesses they developed as a result of asbestos exposure, and many of the lawsuits have involved Navy veterans. The Federal Tort Claims Act allows the U.S. government to escape liability for its role, leaving private contractors exposed to all legal action.

Former shipyard workers who develop asbestos-related diseases may be eligible to file a personal injury lawsuit or asbestos trust fund claims. Those who lost a loved one to one of these diseases may qualify to file a wrongful death claim.

  • In March 2021, a judge denied a request from the surviving family of a former shipyard worker to grant blanket exclusion of asbestos bankruptcy documents in an asbestos-caused lung cancer lawsuit. Callen Dempster’s surviving family carried on his lung cancer lawsuit after his death. The defendants fought the suit, claiming Dempster received settlements for an asbestosis diagnosis in 1991. The outcome of further case proceedings remains unpublished.
  • In 2019, a Washington state jury awarded $4.25 million to former shipyard worker Douglas Everson and his wife. They claimed Everson’s mesothelioma was caused by asbestos exposure through his work as a marine electrician at a Lockheed shipyard on Harbor Island in Washington.
  • Bert Minton, an employee at Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia, was awarded $25 million in 2011 from Exxon Corporation, which owned the commercial oil tankers he worked on in the 1960s and 1970s. A judge ruled that Exxon knew the dangers of asbestos on the ships yet failed to issue any warnings.
  • In 2007, the family of Richard Walmach, who worked for almost 40 years at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, was awarded $5.2 million by a judge who determined that Foster Wheeler Corp. in New Jersey failed to disclose the risks involved in removing the asbestos insulation from the boilers it made for many ships.

It is important to find a mesothelioma attorney with prior success securing compensation for veterans and shipyard workers. This area of asbestos litigation is complex, so make sure to find an expert to handle your claim properly.


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