Founded just after the First World War, Bender Shipbuilding and Repair is located in Mobile, Alabama. With a 42 foot-deep water frontage of nearly a mile and a half (about two kilometers), the Bender facilities offer easy access to both the open sea and the nation’s major riverways. Four floating drydocks accommodate between vessels from 4,000 to just over 24,000 tons; eleven overhead cranes have lifting capacities of up to 80 tons. Unlike most of the nation’s major shipyards, Bender remains under local ownership; the current president of the company is Thomas B. Bender, Jr.
Bender is a 24-hour operation that manufactures a wide range of civilian craft. These products include crabbing, fishing and shrimp boats as well as factory trawlers, tuna seiners and passenger vessels and riverboats. Currently, over 800 Bender-constructed ships can be found in commercial and private fleets throughout the world.
In 2000, Bender was awarded an $8.1 million dollar contract from the federal government for the “Docking Selected Restricted Availability” of the Coast Guard cutter, U.S.S. Thomas S. Gates. The company was also the recipient of a federal Physical Disaster Loan of over $7.1 million through the Small Business Administration in November of 1999.
Since 2000, Bender has implemented an Environmental Management System in attempts to reduce waste and streamline the production process while increasing production in a way so as to minimize environmental impacts. Over a five-year period, the company was able to reduce the consumption of welding supplies as well as smoke emissions by 30%.
Asbestos was used throughout the shipbuilding industry for half a century. The reason was its flame-retardant properties; a fire at sea is considered the most serious and life-threatening event that can occur onboard a vessel. Between 1930 and 1940, asbestos was used in prodigious amounts in order to insulate pipes, engines, turbines, boilers and heaters. It was also used between decks and fire doors. Additionally, asbestos compounds were applied to bulkheads and cabin walls.
Because of the enclosed environment, below deck areas were particularly dangerous for shipyard workers. Not only were they exposed to a tremendous amount of asbestos fibers, but much of the time these fibers consisted of especially deadly forms of asbestos – namely, amosite and crocidolit.
Most shipbuilding companies did not provide safety equipment to their employees prior to the 1970’s. Indeed, knowledge of the detrimental health effects of asbestos was such a well-guarded secret among asbestos manufacturers and the Department of the Navy, it is possible that many shipyard operators were unaware of it (although many others undoubtedly were).
Those who worked in shipyards as machinists, millwrights, welders, metal casters, and cutting, pressing, and/or grinding machine operators are among those most at risk for contracting mesothelioma, a rare form of asbestos cancer that has asbestos exposure as the sole known cause, or asbestosis, a condition that is made up of scaring within the lungs of a patient.