Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corporation, or BethShip as it was commonly called, owned 15 shipyards during World War II. It was considered to be No. 1 of the big 3 shipbuilders that included Newport News Shipbuilding & Dry Dock and New York Shipbuilding Corporation. It began with facilities at Quincy, MA, Sparrows Point, MD, Staten Island, N Y, and San Pedro, CA. The yards at Staten Island and San Pedro built destroyers. Staten Island also had a foundry that made propellers for Bethlehem's other facilities. At its peak during World War II, Bethlehem Shipbuilding was the most profitable of all the shipyards in the country.
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 war ships. 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.
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.
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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.
The Minimum Requirements for Safety and Industrial Health in Contract Shipyards, a set of guidelines published in 1943, were 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.
Former U.S. Army Capt. Aaron Munz is the director of the Veterans Department at The Mesothelioma Center, and he is a VA-accredited Claims Agent. He received the Bronze Star in 2004 during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Munz has intimate knowledge of how veterans were exposed to asbestos because he served under similar conditions.
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