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During those years of America’s involvement in World War II, asbestos exposure was common to everyone who worked at the facility. Protective clothing issued to a typical foundryman or welder would include asbestos-containing leggings, aprons and gloves. Inside the asbestos mixing room, employees mixed magnesia and asbestos fiber for insulation.

In 1966, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara closed the Brooklyn Navy Yard as part of a cost-cutting move that included a total of 90 military facilities. However, in 1971, the shipyard was re-opened by the City of New York as an industrial park operated by a private development corporation known as the Commerce Labor and Industry in the County of Kings (CLICK).

In 2021, the International Journal of Environmental Health Research published a review of medical literature on the risk of asbestos-related cancer among sailors. A 2020 study was included showing seafarers from five Nordic countries have more than double the risk of developing mesothelioma compared to the general public.

Asbestos Products at Brooklyn Navy Yard’s Shops

The pipe shop onsite at the shipyard used asbestos in the lagging it manufactured. That cloth was then used to act as insulation around hot water and steam pipes in the vessels that were repaired at the shipyard. The boiler shop and the central power plant also used asbestos-containing material produced on premises as insulation.

However, asbestos exposure wasn’t limited to workers who manufactured products containing the toxic mineral. A 1941 personnel needs analysis noted that 19 different trades would be involved with asbestos use in projects such as extending the boiler shop, repairing and extending the central power plant, and reconstructing building ways #1.

Some of these jobs were riskier than others. Boiler workers and insulators were especially at risk of high exposure.

A 2017 study published in Archives of Environmental & Occupational Health evaluated the risk of mesothelioma among shipyard workers. The workers exposed to a moderate amount of asbestos were about four times more likely to die of mesothelioma.

Safety Measures

In addition to wearing protecting masks, employees in the pipe shop mixed asbestos and magnesia under a hooded exhaust fan to reduce the inhalation of airborne fibers. In June 1940, as a result of the observation of a Safety Engineer, the hooded fan was replaced with a larger one that was considered to be better able to draw off the dust.

Another safety measure that was instituted was the practice of having employees work with their shirt sleeves rolled up and banded to prevent them from slipping down. This was done in an effort to keep workers from acquiring asbestos dust on their sleeves. They were also required to wear protective goggles and wash any exposed skin with water provided at the jobsite to reduce the carrying of asbestos fibers home with them.

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Medical Officer Recommends Monitoring Employee Health

In April 1940, the medical officer assigned to the Brooklyn Navy Yard issued a report that was a compilation of recommendations based on his own observations regarding the conditions at the facility and the standards suggested by the U.S. Public Health Service.

In his report the medical officer advised that:

  • Sandblasters should receive semi-annual chest X-rays
  • All asbestos workers should receive annual chest X-rays in January
  • Industrial X-ray and radium workers should receive a bimonthly complete blood analysis
  • Pickling plant workers in the coppersmith shop should receive semi-annual chest X-rays
  • Electric and gas welders did not need any medical testing unless they were continuously assigned to welding/cutting metal covered with lead paint or metal containing lead. In those instances, the workers should be given a semi-annual chest X-ray.
  • Slate and red putty workers in the paint shop should receive semi-annual chest X-rays
  • Spray painters should receive an annual workup that included a chest X-ray and blood tests
  • Brush painters did not need any testing unless they were continuously assigned to working with lead paint.

This medical surveillance program was made effective in May 1940.