Shipbuilding is an ancient industry; the Chinese and Egyptians have been at it for 3,000 years, and the seamanship of Polynesian peoples has been legendary for centuries.
In that respect, Seward’s Ship’s Dry Dock and Chandlery is very much a newcomer, having started operations in 1974. Fishing is a major industry in Alaska; Seward was founded in response to the needs of fishermen, who at the time had little access to local repair and maintenance services. The business expanded rapidly; a 300 ton marine railway was constructed in 1979, and a 5,000 ton Syncro-Lift (a special type of underwater device that lifts boats directly out of the water, ready to be towed to dry dock facilities) installed at a new facility in 1985.
Today, Seward has moved from its original site on Lowell Point to an eleven-acre facility in the Leirer Industrial Park, which includes 35,000 spare feet of covered work area. According to the prospectus, the company services everything “from rowboats to oil tankers.” They have received approval from both the U.S. Coast Guard and the American Bureau of Shipping (ABS).
Were Seward Workers Exposed to Asbestos?
Seward Ship’s Drydock has never been an actual factory where ships are constructed from the keel up. Any exposure to asbestos would most likely have been aboard a client ship build prior to the 1980s. In this case it would be important to have access to all company records, including the names of client’s vessels and what asbestos products were either already aboard or taken aboard in the course of service and/or maintenance jobs.
Most ships built prior to 1980 contained tremendous amounts of asbestos insulation and paint. The reason was because of the danger of fire at sea; it is perhaps the most life-threatening situation faced by men and women aboard a vessel.
This danger was brought home to the American people in 1934, when the S.S. Morro Castle caught fire off the coast of New Jersey. Nearly one-fifth of the crew and passengers aboard died either in the fire itself or attempting to escape. Partially as a result of this, marine industry lobbyists pressured Congress to hold hearings, the result of which made the federal government the largest purchaser of asbestos products. The civilian shipbuilding industry followed suit.
Meanwhile, the asbestos industry itself made certain that information about health risks related to asbestos – which were well known by the 1930’s and known to lead to illnesses such as asbestosis or the deadly asbestos cancer known as mesothelioma – did not become public knowledge. The truth about this corporate conspiracy came out in 1977 with the discovery of what came to be known as the “Sumner Simpson Papers.”
These papers consisted of correspondence between Raysbestos CEO Sumner Simpson and the management of another large asbestos company, Johns-Manville. These letters revealed that the asbestos industry had commissioned a number of studies during the 1930s confirming the link between asbestos and pulmonary disease; these results were deliberately suppressed for forty years.
Most shipyard workers – particularly those working below decks – suffered some degree of asbestos exposure prior to that time. Specific jobs in which workers were at greatest risk were those of welders, carpenters, painters, sheet metal workers, riggers, pipe fitters, electricians and general laborers.
While establishing liability in mesothelioma cases requires a great deal of research and is often problematic, once ultimate liability is established, such cases historically have a high rate of success for plaintiffs. The reason is that malignant mesothelioma has only one known proven cause, which is asbestos exposure. For this reason, it is important to have an irrefutable diagnosis from a qualified oncologist.