Of all the dangers faced by sailors, none are more feared than a fire at sea. This may seem odd, being as they are surrounded by water, but the fact is that a ship’s hull is designed to keep water out, not to allow it aboard. Besides that, combustible materials on board tend to burn very hot and very fast. Meanwhile, there is no escape, except overboard – which is not usually a good alternative.
Considering that the nation was on the verge of war in 1940, it is understandable that the Department of the Navy would make fire safety a priority aboard its ships.
The irony is that the solution – asbestos – may ultimately have cost as many lives in the shipyards as were lost in combat. With so many called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice for their country in combat, it is possible that the Navy expected that patriotic shipyard workers would be willing to make the same sacrifice.
The differences are: (A) those who put on a uniform knew the risks they were taking, and (B) death in combat is relatively quick and immediate.
Orders From the Top
On 11 March 1941 – ten months before Pearl Harbor – U.S. Navy Commander of Preventive Medicine C.S. Stephenson sent a memo entitled “Asbestos” to Rear Admiral Ross McIntire. The memo stated:
“…we are not protecting these men as we should… I told [the assistant Secretary of the Navy] that I had spoken to you and you had indicated that President Roosevelt thought that [informing workers about the hazard] might not be the best policy, due to the fact that they might cause disturbances in the labor element.”
Yet the Navy continued to ignore physicians’ warnings after the war, through out the Korean conflict and Vietnam.
“…you are talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars to protect all the people that work in shipyards. It was a lot cheaper to let them work unprotected. The companies figured, ‘Sure, some of the workers will die, and fewer will sue us – it is still much cheaper than buying the protective gear.'”
While a nation at war demands sacrifices of its citizens, there is a general consensus that at the very least, the Navy owed shipyard workers a full disclosure so that they could have made up their own minds about the risks involved.
It’s Not Only Shipyard Workers
If you sailed on any ship built prior to the 1980’s, whether it was a Navy cruiser, a freighter or even on a cruise ship, chances are good that you have had some exposure to asbestos. Asbestos insulation was used throughout old turbine steam ships, not only for pipes and other fittings as well as fireproof doors, but often between decks in order to muffle sounds. This is not to say that you will get mesothelioma, a rare form of asbestos cancer that affects the lungs (in it’s most common form, pleural mesothelioma) as well as the heart, stomach, and other organs, from the three-week cruise you went on twenty years ago; not all who are exposed to asbestos will contract the disease. For reasons not fully understood, some persons are more susceptible than others, and in any event, it usually requires intense exposure in an enclosed space for many months or years to trigger the disease.
Nonetheless, if you have been in a high-risk situation or occupation at any time during your past and have not yet had symptoms, it is especially important to be checked regularly, as malignant mesothelioma – like most cancers – is most treatable in its early stages.
If you have been affected, understand that the liable party in the eyes of the court will probably not be the shipyard, the cruise line or even the Navy, but the manufacturer of the asbestos product. Therefore, it will be important for you to recall as many details about your employment as possible in order to help your mesothelioma lawyer build a strong case.