Shipyard workers built and maintained ships designed for military and civilian use, ranging from aircraft carriers in the U.S. Navy to luxury liners in the cruise industry. These blue-collar workers, some of them craftsmen and others tradesmen, performed an array of jobs within the industry. They included painting, electrical work, welding, plumbing, insulating, repairing and general contracting. Regardless of the specialty, these laborers usually were exposed to asbestos, which was utilized so extensively in the industry.
Asbestos was once considered a critical element in the shipbuilding industry - especially so in the military - because of its ability to resist heat and prevent fires that would be disastrous for a vessel at sea. It also was a great insulator and was resistant to corrosion.
Before the toxicity of asbestos became so well known, ships often were laden in it from bow to stern. The irony is that asbestos products were utilized on ships for safety reasons, yet it was the presence of asbestos that may have endangered workers the most.
Shipyards on both U.S. coasts have long histories of asbestos exposure and a legacy of former employees developing mesothelioma and other asbestos 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.
Although the shipbuilding industry peaked during the 1940s during World War II and the sudden need for more Navy vessels, workers had jobs in it throughout the 20th century.
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Until the 1970s, the U.S. Navy authorized the use of more than 300 asbestos-containing products during ship construction. It was perfect for any part located near high temperatures, and any area where there was potential for corrosion.
Asbestos was used throughout boiler rooms, engine rooms and sleeping quarters. It was used as insulation and pipe covering, with gaskets and valves and as adhesives. It was mixed with paint that covered the ships. 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 being put at risk.
The exposure to asbestos at the shipyards would begin with the loading and unloading of the materials and parts already containing the asbestos. The crates, pallets and wrapping materials used to transport the products usually contained asbestos fibers, either from the ship itself, or from the contents of the crates. Just delivering parts for the ship and transporting to where they would be installed could have 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 also were at risk from asbestos exposure. Depending upon the shipyard, workers performed their tasks on battleships, aircraft carriers, submarines, cruisers, destroyers and auxiliary vessels.
Anytime those microscopic asbestos fibers are disturbed and become airborne, they become more dangerous. Workers unknowingly inhale the fibers, and they become trapped in the lining surrounding the lungs.
Those who worked in shipyards between World War II and the Vietnam War – at the height of the asbestos era – likely were exposed. It can take anywhere from 10-50 years after exposure before symptoms of mesothelioma cancer or asbestosis will appear.
A number of shipyards across the United States have shown to have extensive histories of asbestos exposure. Those include multi-state yards that were owned by one company with wide-ranging operations: Todd Shipyards and Kaiser Shipbuilding Company.
A study entitled Asbestos and Ship-Building: Fatal Consequences, published by the Ulster Medical Society in 2008 and available from the U.S. National Institutes of Health, showed that shipyard workers carried a mortality rate from asbestosis – caused by an exposure to asbestos – that is 16 times more than the average of other occupations. A large percentage of those deaths were concentrated along the East and West coasts of the United States where much of the ship building was done.
The estimated number of shipyard workers declined after World War II, falling from a high of 1.7 million to about 200,000 in the late 1970s when the use of asbestos began its rapid decline.
Studies have shown that military veterans have been hit especially hard by asbestos exposure – an estimated 30 percent of all mesothelioma lawsuits are filed by veterans – and that the Navy was the branch of service most affected.
The shipyard industry – and its overwhelming dependence on asbestos – has been ripe for legal action against manufacturers. Although many of the lawsuits involve Navy veterans who worked the shipyards, the Federal Tort Claims Act allows the U.S. government to escape liability for its role, leaving the private contractors exposed to all legal action. Two of many examples of lawsuits from former shipyard workers:
GAF Corporation, formerly Ruberoid Corporation, was contracted by the Navy to insulate ships with various asbestos products through the 20th century.
Manville Corporation, formerly the Johns Manville Corporation, produced products for the Navy and private industries that were used in the repair and ships.
Both companies, at various times and like so many others, attempted to shift the blame for the asbestos exposure at shipyards to the U.S. Navy and its policies that often dictated specifications. Many companies that provided services to shipyards were flooded with lawsuits.
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