Deckhands & Sailors

Deckhands and sailors often came into contact with asbestos as part of their regular duties. Asbestos was a heavily used shipbuilding material before the 1980s. Routine maintenance and repairs repeatedly disturbed asbestos-containing products, putting deckhands and sailors at an extremely high risk of exposure.

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Deckhands and Sailors and Asbestos Exposure

Being a mariner came with an extremely high risk of asbestos exposure. Navy and Marine veterans working on battleships and submarines weren’t the only ones at risk.

Any deckhand or sailor working in the merchant marine industry may have been exposed to asbestos on freighters, tugs, and transport vessels.

From the 1920s to the late 1980s, asbestos was used as a primary material and mixed into every type of shipbuilding product. This put every sailor and deckhand in close contact with large amounts of asbestos for long durations.

As a result, all mariners employed before the 1980s face a high risk of developing mesothelioma.

How Deckhands and Sailors Were Exposed to Asbestos

Nearly every component on military and civilian vessels contained asbestos. Due to routine maintenance and emergency repairs, these asbestos-containing products were constantly disturbed, releasing asbestos into the air.

Deckhands and sailors experienced higher rates of asbestos exposure when performing work below deck compared to surface duties.

While asbestos materials were also present on the upper deck, wind prevented asbestos fibers from lingering in the air where they could be inhaled.

Ship hulls, engine areas, and boiler rooms, on the other hand, were cramped spaces with poor ventilation which trapped airborne asbestos fibers.

Asbestos Exposure Was Unavoidable

A ship’s working environment was not the only place where deckhands and sailors were at risk. Asbestos was used in their galleys and sleeping quarters as well.

Fibers floated in stowage areas, control centers, and even on the navigation bridges. Clothing and personal items were thoroughly contaminated. Asbestos was unavoidable on ships built in the World War II era and the following decades.

Asbestos Products Used in Ships

In the 20th century, asbestos was considered the perfect shipbuilding additive. It was inexpensive, lightweight, and completely fire-resistant.

Asbestos was an exceptional insulator for both heat and cold and also worked well as a sound suppressor. Asbestos was used in the manufacture or installation of almost every onboard ship product.

Some asbestos-containing products found on ships include:

  • Electrical wire coatings
  • Brake linings in driveshafts
  • Fire blocking between bulkheads
  • Gaskets and sealants for engines and boilers
  • Sound deadeners surrounding sleeping bunks

Deckhand and Sailor Careers

Although deckhands and sailors are both mariners employed on ocean-going, river-running and lake-crossing vessels, their occupations differ slightly. Both are professional mariner designations, but their duties vary.

Deckhands are typically civilians responsible for the following ship-related tasks:

  • Serving above-deck for loading and unloading cargo
  • Maintaining above-board equipment and ship infrastructure
  • Working between ship and shore for fueling and oiling stops
  • Cleaning surfaces contaminated with oil, grease, and salt spray
  • De-icing decks in cold weather operation

Sailors are typically servicepeople enlisted as seafarers or commissioned officers. Enlisted sailors are professional military service people who dedicate their entire careers to ship operations. Some are ticketed master mariners. Others hold naval accreditations and a wide range of ship skills.

Sailors are responsible for several ship-operating duties, including:

  • Commanding, steering, and navigating all vessel sizes
  • Operating ship drive systems from engines to propellers
  • Maintaining all ship systems like electronics, hydraulics, and pneumatics
  • Servicing and controlling shipboard weapons systems
  • Controlling, heating, and cooling components, including boilers and reservoir tanks

Many sailors and deckhand duties overlapped. Since ship workspaces are confined, the mariner occupations were in constant contact and communication.

Close quarters meant that sailors and deckhands worked, ate and slept in communal confines. Each individual was exposed to similar environmental hazards, the greatest of which was airborne asbestos fibers.

Deckhand and Sailor Health Risks

Many deckhands and sailors were regularly exposed to large amounts of airborne asbestos fibers every day. This went on for years, putting seafarers in the highest risk group for developing mesothelioma.

Most deckhands and sailors had no idea that asbestos exposure was dangerous.

It can take 20-50 years for mariners to develop mesothelioma symptoms, often decades after they last served their countries.

Mesothelioma is a fatal disease caused only by exposure to asbestos. Sailors and deckhands continually inhaled microscopic asbestos particles without knowing.

Airborne asbestos fibers that were dislodged from primary ship products and inhaled by unsuspecting workers became lodged in the lining of the lungs, called the pleura.

Over time, prolonged irritation of the pleura by asbestos fibers can lead to the development of cancerous mesothelioma tumors.

Help for Mesothelioma Victims

Many manufacturers of asbestos-containing products used in shipbuilding were fully aware of the health risks to sailors, deckhands, and other workers exposed to their products.

Some companies intentionally hid the dangers of asbestos from the public and put thousands of people at unnecessary risk so they could continue profiting from this deadly substance.

If you served on board a merchant or military marine vessel and developed mesothelioma, you may be eligible for legal compensation. This compensation can help offset your medical expenses and lost income.

Taking legal action may also result in punitive damages against the company that negligently supplied asbestos products to the shipbuilder. Families may also file lawsuits on behalf of victims who are ill or have passed away.

Our Justice Support Team can help deckhands and sailors connect to medical and legal resources. Learn about the ways we help.

Author:Stephanie Kidd

Editor-in-Chief of the Mesothelioma Justice Network

Stephanie Kidd

Stephanie Kidd works tirelessly as a dedicated advocate for the vulnerable and underrepresented. Stephanie worked as a copywriter for an agency whose focus was communicating safety procedures on construction work sites. With her extensive background in victim advocacy and a dedication to seeing justice done, Stephanie works hard to ensure that all online content is reliable, truthful and helpful.

Last modified: August 27, 2019

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