The Bath Iron Works is the last major ship builder in New England, and the largest employer in the area. The people of Bath take a great deal of pride in the company and the jobs they perform; the launching of a new ship is similar to the arrival of a newborn, and a cause for community celebration. Recently, Bath workers launched the fourth of the U.S. Navy’s latest surface ships, an Arleigh Burke class destroyer commissioned in February of 2007 as the USS Gridley.
In 2001, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) assessed fines against Bath Iron Works totaling over $200,000. After a six month investigation resulting from employee complaints, fifty violations were discovered. Fourteen of these were repeat violations.
Located along the Kennebec River, Bath has a tradition of shipbuilding that predates the existence of the U.S. as a nation; HMS Earl of Bute was launched near present-day Bath in 1762 when Maine was still part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
The Bath Iron Works (BIW) foundry started operations in 1826. Following the U.S. Civil War almost forty years later, a retired Union general named Thomas Hyde took over the foundry. With the acquisition of Goss Marine Iron Works in 1888, Hyde’s company expanded into shipbuilding. BIW Hull #1 was a passenger ship designed for coastal waters; the S.S. Cottage City, built for the Maine Steamship Company, was launched in 1890.
Bath Iron Works received several orders from the U.S. Navy during the First World War. Between 1919 and 1941, the company focused on the construction of private civilian and commercial orders, but went back to war production with the rest of the nation’s industries after Pearl Harbor. Opening a second facility in East Brunswick, Bath Iron Works produced over 80 destroyers during the Second World War – an average of one every 17 days. These ships had a reputation for ruggedness and durability; at the time, it was said that “Bath-built was best-built”.
Since that time, 424 additional contracts were awarded to Bath Iron Works, 245 of which have been naval ships. The remaining ships consisted of private yachts and various commercial vessels. The last commercial contract was for two oil tankers in 1981; all hulls produced since that time have been for the U.S. Navy. The company now manufactures turbine casings and pulp-processing equipment as well.
Changes of Ownership
In 1967, Bath Iron Works was part of a holding company called Bath Industries, Inc., which became Congoleum Corporation in 1975. Bath Iron Works was taken over by Prudential Insurance in 1986. Since 1995, Bath Iron Works has been a wholly-owned subsidiary of defense contractor General Dynamics.
Shipboard fires are particularly dangerous and difficult to deal with. Because of this, asbestos was used throughout vessels built prior to 1980. Asbestos insulation could be found around pipes, boilers and between decks.
Despite the widespread use of asbestos in ship construction, shipyard and iron workers throughout the industry had little or no access to safety equipment prior to the 1970s. Workers at highest risk for mesothelioma (A rare form of asbestos cancer that’s only known cause is exposure to asbestos), lung cancer, pleural plaques, and asbestosis (A condition where the lungs are scared as a direct result of asbestos fibers) include machinists, millwrights, welders, metal casters, and those who operate cutting, pressing, and grinding machines.