Bethlehem Shipbuilding began with facilities in Quincy, Massachusetts; Sparrows Point, Maryland; Staten Island, New York and San Pedro, California.
The yards at Staten Island and San Pedro built destroyers. Staten Island also had a foundry that made propellers for Bethlehem’s other facilities.
Armstrong, Ruberoid, Pittsburgh Corning and Johns-Mansville were all names familiar to the shipyard workers at Bethlehem Shipbuilding because these were the manufacturers that provided the asbestos-containing products used to construct warships. But the material’s use wasn’t only confined to shipbuilding; asbestos lagging in the form of pipe insulation, block and cement was used throughout these shipyards.
Exposure to these kinds of products caused many shipyard workers to develop asbestos-related diseases later in life.
A review of medical literature on asbestos-related cancer risk among sailors was published in the International Journal of Environmental Health Research in 2021. It reported seafarers from five Nordic countries have more than double the risk of developing mesothelioma compared to the general public, according to a 2020 study.
A 2017 article published in Archives of Environmental & Occupational Health reported shipyard employees with a history of moderate asbestos exposure are almost four times more likely to die of mesothelioma.
Multiple Uses for Asbestos Products
A walking tour of a typical Bethlehem facility would reveal just how many uses there were for asbestos. Raybestos cloth was stored and dispensed in the yard storeroom. The large rolls of asbestos fabric and insulation wrapping were cut to order depending upon need, and that would release fibers into the air, continually exposing the employee who managed the storeroom to dangerous dust.
Workers in the Y department cleaned up asbestos materials, including blankets, left by other employees. Rigging department workers like welders and burners constantly used asbestos blankets. Ship fitters always carried a piece of asbestos cloth to kneel down on while working on the hot steel decks. But that wasn’t their only exposure, because these tradesmen worked alongside welders and burners who also used asbestos fabrics and other asbestos-contaminated materials such as gaskets.
Workers in the boiler room, engine room and pump room (who also worked with asbestos insulation) tore off and replaced asbestos cloth, in many cases with their bare hands, causing a windfall of fibers to be released into the air. Using asbestos cloth was a way of life in the 1940s at Bethlehem Shipyards; they even went so far as to use it to patch torn work clothes.
Outside Contractors also Installed Asbestos
In addition to the asbestos materials used and cut onsite, Bethlehem shipyards also employed outside contractors to supply and install the toxic materials. One such supplier was the McCormick Asbestos Company, who not only sold the product, but sent its own employees to install asbestos-containing insulation, block and cement.
Safety Standards were not Enforced at Bethlehem
“The Minimum Requirements for Safety and Industrial Health in Contract Shipyards,” a set of guidelines published in 1943, was approved by both the Secretary of the Navy and the Chairman of the Maritime Commission. The booklet containing these requirements contained an introductory letter from these two officials explaining compliance with the guidelines, and the booklet was sent to all shipyards with contracted work for the Navy.
Although the requirements included standards for the safe use of asbestos and included at what airborne levels respirators and ventilation equipment were required to be used, compliance surveys taken at Bethlehem shipyards indicated that no change in the handling of asbestos resulted from the Navy’s attempt to mandate safety standards.