Deckhands & Sailors

One of the extreme asbestos risk occupations was being a mariner. That’s not just risky asbestos exposure for Navy and Marine veterans on battleships and submarines. It included the entire merchant marine industry where deckhands and sailors worked on freighters, tugs and transport vessels.

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From the 1920s till the late 1890s, asbestos was a primary material for mixing into every type of shipbuilding product. This puts every sailor and deckhand in close contact with large amounts of asbestos fibers for long durations.  As a result, all mariners employed during that careless era are at exceptionally high-risk of developing mesothelioma.

Deckhand and Sailor Roles and Duties

Although deckhands and sailors were both mariners employed on ocean-going, river-running and lake-crossing vessels, they’re technically different occupations. Both are professional mariner designations, but their duties vary. Deckhands are usually civilians rather than service people.

They’re responsible for these 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
  • Deicing decks in cold weather operation

Sailors are generally enlisted seafarers as well as commissioned officers. These are professional military service people who dedicate entire careers to ship operations. Some are highly ticketed master mariners. Others hold naval accreditations and a wide range of ship skills.

Sailors have these ship operating duties:

  • Commanding, steering, and navigation 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 sailor and deckhand duties overlapped. They were constantly in contact and communication with each other as ship workspaces are confined. Close quarters meant than sailors and deckhands worked, ate and slept in communal confines. Each individual was exposed to similar environmental hazards and the biggest endangerment was airborne asbestos fibers.

Sailor and Deckhand Asbestos Exposure

Practically every area and component onboard military and civilian vessels contained asbestos. Fibers and particles were ever present. This was due to so many pieces being made with asbestos and they were constantly being disturbed by routine maintenance and emergency repairs.

Sailors and deckhands experienced higher rates of asbestos exposure below decks as opposed to surface duties. That’s not because asbestos materials weren’t present above deck. It was specifically due to ship hulls, engine areas and boiler rooms being cramped spaces with poor ventilation. Conversely, the open deck had plenty of wind blowing past that carried ever-present asbestos fibers away from harmful inhalation.

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Hot and busy ship environments weren’t the only place ship workers were at high-risk. Asbestos was ever-present in their galleys and sleeping quarters. Fibers floated in stowage areas, control centers and even on the navigation bridges. Particles got up noses, in stomachs and were absorbed by the skin. Clothes and personal items were thoroughly contaminated. Asbestos was literally everywhere in ships built in the World War II era and following decades.

Asbestos was considered the perfect shipbuilding additive. It was inexpensive, lightweight and completely flame-proof. Asbestos was a wonderful heat and cold insulator as well as an excellent sound suppressor. Name a ship part and asbestos was used in its manufacture and installation.

That includes:

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

Mesothelioma in Sailors and Deckhands

Many deckhands and sailors were constantly exposed to huge amounts of airborne asbestos fibers every day. This went on for years, making these unwary seafarers in the highest risk group for developing mesothelioma. Most sea-goers had no idea that asbestos exposure was so dangerous. They didn’t develop mesothelioma disease symptoms for decades after they last debarked.

Mesothelioma is a fatal disease when it reaches later stages. Microscopic asbestos fibers being dislodged from primary products and becoming airborne is the sole cause of mesothelioma. Sailors and deckhands continually inhaled asbestos particles that lodged in their pleura, which is the lungs’ lining. This buildup eventually became a cancerous carcinogen that erupted as mesothelioma tumors.

Compensation for Deckhands and Sailors

If you served onboard a merchant or military marine vessel and developed mesothelioma from asbestos exposure, you could be entitled to compensation. That may offset medical expenses, lost income or it might result in punitive damages against the company that negligently supplied asbestos products to the shipbuilder. Families may also file lawsuits on behalf of ill or passed-on members.

It’s well established that many manufacturers of asbestos-containing products used in shipbuilding were fully aware of the potential health risks to sailors, deckhands and any worker exposed to their products. Some intentionally hid this explosive asbestos evidence and put thousands of people at unnecessary risk so they could continue profiting from this deadly substance.

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: May 22, 2019

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