With a history that goes back to 1799, the Washington Navy Yard came into prominence with U.S. entry into World War II. As thousands of younger skilled workers were called up for combat duty, many women – including some who had worked at the plant a generation earlier during the First World War – and older retired men returned to their jobs.
With competition for skilled workers at an intensity not seen in decades, the Navy responsibilities of the yard’s Civilian Personnel Officer were greatly expanded. In addition to hiring and retaining workers, the CPO was also responsible for union negotiations, administering the employee credit union, the sale of war bonds and addressing morale issues.
The Washington Navy Yard was not actually a shipbuilding facility, although it started out as such. Since the War of 1812, its chief product was ordnance – primarily guns and munitions. The yard was re-designated the U.S. Naval Gun Factory in 1945.
Always at the forefront of technology, the factory was not only the first manufacturing plant to employ the steam engine, it was actually one of the first industrial facilities to use computers for solving differential equations (often required for engineering problems) in 1954.
Ordnance manufacture was phased out in 1961 and the factory closed. In 1964, the site was again re-designated, this time as the Washington Navy Yard, and its buildings converted to office use. Today, the Washington Navy Yard is the headquarters of the Naval District Washington, and is home to an extensive museum of naval history.
Virtually all industrial activities prior to the 1980’s involved asbestos, whether it was shipbuilding, steel making, auto manufacture or the direct production of asbestos products. The Washington Navy Yard was no exception; part of the manufacture of guns and ship fittings required some type of fire-proofing because of the blast furnaces, steel and iron-casting activities, and numerous flammable substances typically found in factory settings.
Ironically, asbestos exposure could result from the very clothing and equipment that was meant to protect a worker. Anyone who worked around molten steel and iron probably had asbestos gloves, bibs and coveralls.
Those most likely to suffer from asbestos exposure are those who were welders, carpenters, painters, riggers, pipe fitters, electricians and metal cutters – all jobs that were performed at the Yard at some point.
Mesothelioma, an aggressive form of asbestos cancer, typically has a long latency period – that is, the period between initial exposure and appearance of symptoms. This is one reason that mesothelioma lawsuits are difficult. On the other hand, asbestos exposure is the only known and proven cause of malignant mesothelioma, so when a solid and irrefutable diagnosis is established and a definite connection between the disease and a specific incidence of exposure, such cases are decided in favor of the plaintiff in the majority of cases.