Portsmouth Naval Shipyard

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In 1971, the United States enacted legislation limiting asbestos exposure. Before then, workers in certain industries, like shipyards, were exposed largely unregulated levels of asbestos. The Portsmouth Navy Shipyard was one asbestos “hotspot”.

The asbestos reform process was lengthy, complicated, expensive and prone to litigation, but, by the 80s, the Navy stopped installing most asbestos laden materials. Subsequently, large amounts of asbestos were removed from refitted and mothballed ships.

Nevertheless, workers were still becoming exposed both to asbestos and the diseases that it causes, such as asbestosis, a scaring of the tissue in the lungs, and several deadly forms of asbestos cancer, including lung cancer and mesothelioma, as described by a 1983 grievance filed against the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. While undergoing overhaul, most of the asbestos materials are initially removed from a submarine by workers who use protective equipment. Unfortunately, after that, other workers, who are unprotected, can become exposed if the remaining onboard asbestos inadvertently becomes damaged. Also, asbestos dust from the initial work may remain in unseen or inaccessible areas, easily becoming airborne again.

As a result of the grievance filing, several work process changes were made:

  1. asbestos insulation would be clearly marked,
  2. a protective covering would be placed on asbestos insulation,
  3. more surveillances would be made of potential asbestos areas,
  4. air monitoring practices would be improved,
  5. employee awareness would be improved, and
  6. a water-injection procedure would be developed to reduce asbestos particulates during the removal process.

In a perfect world, well-written procedures are followed by well-trained and conscientious workers. In the real world, problems usually pop up through unintentional oversights. For example, an asbestos work area can become compromised if ladders or decking grates are not considered (they can provide access or air flow to and from other levels), or, if the work area boundaries are inadvertently changed. When such things happen, hopefully workers can recognize asbestos problems when they see them and know what to do.

Nowadays, asbestos is still rarely encountered, mostly in older piping insulation, newly uncovered areas or certain types of modern piping gaskets. The good news is that the swap out of asbestos with other materials is ongoing. When this can’t be done, the use of engineering, administrative controls and personal protective equipment are mandated. Extra caution is required when cable, piping, bulkhead or deck insulation is removed, relocated or replaced – it is treated as containing asbestos or other hazardous material, unless otherwise identified. The work process is also preplanned with controlled procedures that provide efficient, step-by-step asbestos removal in compliance with OSHA.

And it’s not just the ships that fall under asbestos regulations. The older shipyards also have some very old buildings. Similar to the ships, the Navy also has policies in place for the management of asbestos during facility renovation and demolition.