The Brooklyn Navy Yard, also known as The United States Navy Yard, New York and the New York Naval Shipyard, became an active naval installation in 1806. During the years between 1939 and 1945, the shipyard's workforce increased to 70,000 employees, many of whom were women who worked as mechanics and technicians in support of the war effort.
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).
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.
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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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:
This medical surveillance program was made effective in May 1940.
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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