The U.S. Navy has quite a checkered past when it comes to asbestos management. Asbestos’ fire- and corrosion-proof nature, insulating qualities and variety of forms made it ideal for shipbuilding use. Its health effects made it particularly dangerous for cramped quarters, poorly ventilated engine rooms, and contained environments such as found on submarines. The Navy was inarguably slow to give up the benefits of asbestos and address the dangers.
The U.S. government once mandated the use of asbestos in its military equipment contracts. Asbestos was built into ships, particularly used for insulation and pipe coverings, gaskets, felts, meters, deck coverings, and adhesives – anything that had to stand up to the heat of engine rooms – and hundreds of other uses besides. Virtually anyone working in a shipyard was exposed to asbestos. On board, asbestos was inescapable in close quarters. There are stories from sailors who recount sleeping in bunks stacked below asbestos-covered pipes, which flaked off so badly that they had to shake the dust out of their bedding every day.
The Navy was not ignorant of the dangers of asbestos. In 1922, the Navy issued a medical bulletin that put asbestos work in a list of hazardous occupations and suggested the use of respirators. By the late 1930s, corpsman were given handbooks advising them of asbestos hazards.
With the beginning of WWII, asbestos concerns were shelved in the rush to build the U.S. fleet. The American fleet grew from 394 vessels in 1939 to 6768 in 1945, a seventeen-fold increase. More than 4 million men and women worked at building and repair. Thousands of metric tons of asbestos was used to wrap the pipes and line the boilers, engines and turbines of the ships.
In 1943, the government issued standards for exposure which were supposed to protect the workers who sometimes labored in “massive fogs of asbestos dust”. The “Minimum Requirements for Safety and Industrial Health in Contract Shipyards” publication set standards for asbestos workers and workplaces in all yards that built or repaired Navy ships. Requirements were set forth for the segregation of dust-producing jobs and special ventilation of dusty areas. Asbestos workers were to wear respirators and receive periodic medical examinations.
The rules were supposed to be enforced by the shipyards. Instead, shipbuilding took precedence. The rules were not enforced until the 1970s.
Working in an American shipyard during WWII turned out to be almost as deadly as fighting in the war. The combat death rate was 18 per 1000. As many as 14 per 1000 shipyard workers died from a form of asbestos cancer known as mesothelioma, and an unknown number beyond that from asbestosis complications.
When the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began the asbestos reform campaign in the 1970s, the Navy had a huge investment to protect. There were at least 298 asbestos-containing materials being used on ships, and it would take years and millions of dollars to remove all the insulation from the fleet of more than 500 ships.
The Navy imposed a ban on the use of ACMs on new ships in 1973, then violated its own ban for at least five years. Some shipyards continued the training of asbestos-insulations workers in 1975, two years after the Navy ban. The Navy later disclosed that at least 41 ships with asbestos-containing insulation were built after 1973.
In 1983 the first Navy Occupational Safety and Health (NAVOSH) Program Manual was implemented. It applies to all Navy civilian and military personnel and operations ashore or afloat. It does not address all safety and health issues ashore and in those cases OSHA guidelines must be followed. The Navy Asbestos Control Program, part of the NAVOSH program, ensures compliance with OSHA regulations. Its purpose is to protect Navy personnel who come in contact with asbestos.
With very limited exception, asbestos-containing materials are no longer used in shipbuilding. The Navy’s principal concern is now with the removal of materials as they become friable over time. Removal of asbestos is limited to intermediate maintenance activities, shipyards and contractors. Onboard ship, personnel cannot remove asbestos except in an operational emergency, when approved by the commanding officer.
The Navy follows the health of all personnel exposed to asbestos in their current work or in the past with the Asbestos Medical Surveillance Program. Workers are interviewed to determine exposure risk and followed with periodic chest x-rays.
In the early 1990s, the Industrial Hygiene Information Management System was developed. This is a database designed to look for trends of increasing exposure levels. Worker information is organized based on job operation code, command, and location. Information collected at each Navy facility is submitted to the Navy Environmental Health Center where the data is stored as part of the Navy Occupation Exposure Database.
Asbestos Cancer Surveillance programs and exposure databases may seem a reassuring development, but they do not help military personnel currently suffering from asbestos diseases, such as malignant mesothelioma. With the long latency period associated with asbestosis and asbestos cancers, most victims are retired veterans by the time they are diagnosed. Military personnel, former or current, are prevented by law from seeking compensation from the U.S. government through the courts. In most cases they can’t sue the suppliers of the asbestos materials, as many major suppliers have declared bankruptcy to avoid paying damages – or, with the latency period of 30 years or more, the suppliers may simply be untraceable.