Written by Aaron Munz | Edited By Walter Pacheco | Last Update: June 19, 2024

Why Was Asbestos Used in Shipyards?

Asbestos resists corrosion and high temperatures, which made it an ideal material for use in the shipbuilding industry. Asbestos insulation was widely used on shipyard equipment, and asbestos corrugated sheeting was used to create shipyard buildings.

On ships, asbestos was used to prevent fires by insulating boilers, incinerators, hot water pipes and steam pipes. Asbestos dust tended to build up in inadequately ventilated areas, which led to exposure in shipyards and aboard vessels.

As the use of asbestos-containing products increased in the mid-20th century, occupational health experts began recognizing the diseases they could cause. Studies revealing the dangers of asbestos exposure date back to the 1940s, but it took decades for the U.S. government to acknowledge that inhaled asbestos fibers could persist inside the body, ultimately creating health issues. 

By the 1960s and ’70s, the government took the health effects of asbestos more seriously. The massive task of removing asbestos from ships and replacing it with asbestos-free insulation began then, but the job has yet to be completed.

Ships decommissioned in shipyards today continue to contain old legacy asbestos products. Some of the materials were temporarily encapsulated to reduce the risk of exposure, but it creates an exposure hazard for decommissioning workers.

Possible asbestos exposure sites:

In 1943, one in 500 shipyard workers was an asbestos insulator. The job required them to handle asbestos directly by cutting, sanding and fitting insulation to various components of ships.

Did You Know?
In 1943, one in 500 shipyard workers was an asbestos insulator. The job required them to directly handle asbestos by cutting, sanding and fitting insulation to various components of ships.

U.S. Navy Required Asbestos Use

The U.S. Navy used asbestos materials on ships long before World War II. In 1922, the Navy created a specification requiring asbestos to construct all new submarines.

The Navy used more asbestos products than any other military branch. Asbestos was considered essential to use on vessels before its dangers were known because it naturally resisted saltwater corrosion and effectively prevented fires.

Types of Asbestos:
  • Chrysotile asbestos was used for gaskets, insulation, packing and tape.
  • Amosite asbestos was used for corrosion-resistant insulation.

In 1932, 197 million pounds of asbestos were consumed annually in the U.S. Consumption drastically increased to 633 million pounds by 1937. 

The American government classified asbestos as a critical material in 1939 and began stockpiling it. Worldwide demand for asbestos began to outpace the available supply. A significant amount of this supply found its way to shipyards across the U.S.

Millions of American Workers and Veterans Exposed

The Navy mandate to use asbestos in shipbuilding put millions of people at risk of exposure to asbestos. During World War II, approximately 4,500,000 men and women worked in shipyards where asbestos exposure risk was high. 

Specific jobs required shipyard workers to handle asbestos products directly. These jobs included shipfitters, machinists, maintenance workers, pipefitters, electricians, boilermakers and painters. 

Shipyard workers encountered asbestos even if they didn’t directly handle contaminated products. Cutting, sanding and fitting asbestos products around pipes, boilers and other structures released microscopic fibers into the air, where they could circulate throughout shipyards and vessels undergoing construction, renovation or decommissioning. 

After World War II, the estimated number of shipyard workers declined from 1,700,000 in 1943 to about 200,000. The shipyard worker population remained at this level until 1976, fluctuating slightly with economic conditions and changing shipbuilding practices.

U.S. Shipyards and Asbestos

As of March 2021, the U.S. was home to more than 154 shipyards actively building vessels and more than 300 shipyards engaged in repairs and decommissioning. 

During the Emergency Shipbuilding Program from 1940 to 1945, more than 50 shipyards throughout the country participated in the war effort and asbestos use was mandated.

California Shipyards

Home to the Pacific Coast’s first dry dock and the third-longest coastline in the United States, it’s no surprise that California is a leading state for shipyard asbestos exposure.

California Shipyard Asbestos Exposure Sites:
  • California Naval Shipyard
  • Consolidated Steel Shipyard
  • General Dynamics (NASSCO)
  • Hunters Point Naval Shipyard
  • Moore Dry Dock
  • San Diego Naval Shipyard
  • San Francisco Drydock
  • Long Beach Naval Shipyard

California’s abundant natural asbestos deposits and countless shipyards contribute to the state’s No. 1 ranking in the United States for mesothelioma and asbestosis deaths.

New York Shipyards

The New York Naval Shipyard, also known as the Brooklyn Navy Yard, was established by the government in 1801 and produced countless historic vessels. Though it was decommissioned in 1966, decades of asbestos exposure were reported at the site’s pipe shop, boiler shop, power plant, foundries, shipways and dry docks.

New York Shipyard Asbestos Exposure Sites:
  • Brooklyn Navy Yard
  • Caddell Dry Dock
  • GMD Shipyard
  • New York Shipbuilding Corporation

New York shipyards were among many locations in the state known for asbestos exposure. New York City courts had to develop the New York City Asbestos Litigation division to handle asbestos lawsuits associated with old factories, buildings and shipyards.

Washington Shipyards

Located in the northwestern region of Washington, Puget Sound was bustling with naval shipbuilding activity during World War II. The Bremerton Naval Shipyard, which covers more than 1,300 acres of the sound, is currently the largest shipyard on the West Coast. Reports on the dangers of asbestos exposure at Bremerton date back to the mid-1940s.

Washington Shipyard Asbestos Exposure Sites:
  • Duwamish Shipyard
  • Lockheed Shipyard
  • Tacoma Drydock

A government report on the health effects of asbestos exposure among workers at Bremerton from 1970 showed lung abnormalities on chest X-rays. Insulators and pipefitters were among the most affected, and boiler workers and clerical workers also developed lung abnormalities.

Oregon Shipyards

Oregon shipyards, such as the Albina Engine and Machine Works Shipyard, played a crucial role in the World War II shipbuilding effort. Albina also significantly boosted Portland’s economy and growth during the early 1900s, but not without consequences. Albina shipyard, Swan Island Shipyard and Astoria Voyage Repair Station were known sites of occupational asbestos exposure.

Multistate Shipyards

Several major shipbuilding companies operated a variety of shipyards throughout the United States. Todd Shipyards Corporation, for example, operated yards in Brooklyn, New York; Galveston, Texas; Houston; Seattle; San Francisco; Los Angeles and New Orleans. Following the February 2011 purchase of Todd by Vigor Industrial, these sites became collectively known as Vigor Shipyards.

Kaiser Shipbuilding Company ran another notable chain of shipyards. Kaiser owned seven along the West Coast, including four in California; one in Vancouver, Washington; and two in Portland, Oregon.

Research on Asbestos-Related Disease in Shipyard Workers

Decades worth of research has confirmed the detrimental effects of asbestos exposure in shipyards.

  • A 2021 review of medical literature on the risk of asbestos-related cancer among sailors was published in the International Journal of Environmental Health Research. It included a 2020 study showing that seafarers from five Nordic countries have more than double the risk of developing mesothelioma compared to the rest of the public.
  • Shipyard workers are at high risk of developing esophageal cancer, according to a 2021 meta-analysis published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. The esophagus is near the larynx, and laryngeal cancer is one of the four confirmed asbestos-caused cancers. While some studies showed a low association, others revealed shipyard workers are 1.6 to 2.3 times more likely to develop esophageal cancer than the general public.
  • A 2018 mortality study of shipyard workers in Genoa, Italy, showed significant excess deaths from pleural mesothelioma, lung cancer, laryngeal cancer, asbestosis and other respiratory tract diseases.
  • According to a 2017 study published in Archives of Environmental & Occupational Health, shipyard workers with a moderate level of asbestos exposure were nearly four times more likely to die of mesothelioma.
  • A 1999 mortality study of workers at a U.S. Navy shipyard in Japan showed laggers were 2.75 times more likely to develop lung cancer. Boiler repairers who worked for many years at the yard were 2.41 times more likely to develop lung cancer. A group who worked in the yard for a longer period were 7.78 times more likely to develop pancreatic cancer. At least one worker died of mesothelioma, according to the study published in Industrial Health.
  • The European Journal of Cancer Prevention published a study in 1996 that reported a 49.4-year average latency period for the onset of asbestos-related disease among shipyard workers.
  • A 1985 study published in Cancer Research reported a significantly higher risk of mesothelioma among shipyard workers at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, compared to the general population of Hawaii. Data also showed a high risk of lung cancer among shipyard workers with at least 15 years of asbestos exposure.
  • A 1985 study reported elevated rates of asbestos-related disease among family members of shipyard workers, a result of secondary asbestos exposure. Published in the American Journal of Public Health, the study found radiologic signs of asbestos-related disease in 11.3% of 247 wives of shipyard workers who served at least 20 years. Asbestosis was also reported in 7.6% of 79 sons and 2.1% of 140 daughters of these workers. The study referenced a report of insulation workers that found 35% of their family members had radiologic signs of asbestos disease.

The varying degrees of risk reported in these studies result from the study groups’ exposure to different amounts and types of asbestos. Even short or long asbestos fiber lengths may affect the degree of risk a worker faces. 

For example, researchers from the esophageal cancer study proposed that milled asbestos material may be why shipyard workers are at a higher risk for cancer. Milled asbestos, which is processed into longer-length fibers, was used in shipyards. These fibers are more likely to become trapped in human tissue than smaller fibers.

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Veteran Benefits for Asbestos-Related Conditions

Although evidence suggests the Navy’s negligence led to cases of asbestos exposure, legislation called the Feres Doctrine prevents veterans from seeking government compensation through the court system. Fortunately, many veterans are eligible for disability compensation and health care benefits provided by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Veterans who served in shipyards are eligible for VA benefits if they did not receive a dishonorable discharge and can prove their service exposure is the cause of their disease. 

Liability Falls on Asbestos Companies

As shipyard workers and Navy personnel began developing asbestos-related diseases, they filed claims against asbestos companies seeking compensation for medical costs and lost wages. 

As a result, asbestos product manufacturers filed lawsuits against the U.S. government over liability.

Ultimately, the manufacturers were held liable. Today, shipyard workers and veterans file mesothelioma claims against asbestos companies and trust funds, not the U.S. government.

Navy Accused of Withholding Knowledge of Asbestos Risk

In 1944, GAF Corporation, then known as the Ruberoid Corporation, was contracted by the Navy to insulate ships with asbestos products. Multiple Ruberoid shipyard workers developed asbestosis. GAF tried to escape liability, but the company was eventually held responsible.

GAF Corporation sued to be released from liability based on the results of several shipyard studies. A report from Defoe Shipbuilding in Michigan indicated high levels of amosite asbestos, while another from a Seattle shipyard found asbestos dust released from cutting operations was collecting on overhead rafters and was not regularly removed.

Top Asbestos Supplier Blames Navy for Exposure

In July 1983, the Johns Manville Corporation accused the Navy of allowing “gross exposure to asbestos fibers” to occur in its shipyards, referring to a classified 1944 health survey conducted at Navy contractor Bath Ironworks showing asbestos was 10 times the recommended safety level. A company lawyer claimed the Navy bought asbestos from Africa and then profited from its sale to Johns Manville.

At the time of these allegations, the company was preparing to sue the U.S. government for approximately $1 million to recover damages paid to settle asbestos lawsuits. Johns Manville faced 20,000 lawsuits from people seeking nearly $40 billion in damages. 

Navy Veterans File Claims Against Asbestos Manufacturers

In addition to applying for VA benefits, many Navy veterans and former shipyard workers have turned to mesothelioma lawsuits to recover the costs associated with diagnosing an asbestos-related disease. Though the government cannot be held responsible for asbestos exposure, negligent manufacturers of asbestos-containing products often can.

According to a 2003 article published in The Wall Street Journal, claims filed by veterans exposed in military and shipyard construction made up 26% of cases of mesothelioma, 16% of lung cancer cases and 13% of disabling lung disease cases.

  • A Washington state jury awarded $4.25 million in 2019 to former shipyard worker Douglas Everson and his wife. The couple claimed Everson’s mesothelioma was the result of occupational asbestos exposure. He worked as a marine electrician in the 1970s at a Lockheed shipyard on Harbor Island in Washington.
  • A former Virginia shipfitter was awarded $25 million in 2011 from a lawsuit against ExxonMobil after he developed mesothelioma. While working at Newport News Shipbuilding and aboard 17 Exxon commercial oil tankers throughout the 1960s and ’70s, Bert Minton was exposed to dangerous levels of asbestos. He claimed Exxon knew of the mineral’s health risks but failed to adequately warn or protect shipyard workers and crew members. Exxon’s neglect resulted in one of the largest jury verdicts given in Virginia.
  • Similarly, the family of a career naval machinist who died of mesothelioma in 2006 was awarded $5.2 million after it was determined that Foster Wheeler Corp., a New Jersey engineering and construction firm, did not disclose asbestos risks. Richard Walmach spent most of his 37-year career at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Washington. There, Walmach was required to remove asbestos insulation from boilers made by Foster Wheeler, which also supplied the Navy with steam generators and other power equipment.

Shipyard workers who believe they may have been exposed to asbestos should tell their doctors and request health screenings for asbestos-related illnesses. Documenting your asbestos exposure history in case you develop a condition is also wise. 

If you have legal questions about accessing compensation, it is best to speak with an expert mesothelioma attorney to understand your options based on your diagnosis and exposure history.

When did shipyards ban asbestos?

There is no ban on asbestos in shipyards in the U.S. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency attempted to enact a full ban on all asbestos products for any application in 1989, but it was turned into a partial ban that included only six products.

Why do shipyards have asbestos?

Asbestos was used to build ships because it is naturally resistant to saltwater corrosion and effective at preventing fires on vessels. Asbestos insulation was also used on shipyard equipment, and asbestos sheets were used as an affordable option to construct shipyard buildings.

Do shipyards still use asbestos?

It is possible that shipyards may be actively importing asbestos gaskets or brakes, but this information is not currently available to the public and no U.S. agency is required to track asbestos imports. It is not likely that shipyards have imported asbestos products in recent years.

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