Shipyard Workers

Summary

Shipbuilding was once one of America’s largest industries and largest employers. World War I, World War II and conflicts like Korea, Vietnam and the Cold War put an enormous demand for U.S. military ship production and increasing the merchant marine fleet. At the peak of World War II, over 4.5 million Americans were shipyard workers.

From the 1920s until the mid-1980s, almost every shipbuilding area used asbestos as a preferred construction material.

Heat control, fire protection and rust prevention were paramount concerns for shipbuilders, and asbestos solved these problems. Shipyard workers knew asbestos was thermally inert and fire resistant as well as non-corrosive. It was inexpensive, plentiful and easy to install. What many shipyard workers didn’t know was the long-term health risks associated with asbestos exposure.

Shipyard Workers Roles and Responsibilities

Shipyards were massive facilities employing workers in a wide range of roles. Each had different responsibilities that meshed with one another to produce vessels of every size and for all purposes. Most shipyard workers were hands-on with construction materials and fully-involved with their installation processes.

Some of the leading shipyard worker roles included:

Not all shipyard workers were tradespeople. Many highly-educated and specialized workers were necessary to put ships together.

These are examples of other responsibilities shipyard workers performed:

  • Naval architects and drafters.
  • Mechanical, electrical and nautical engineers.
  • Inspectors and government regulators.
  • Navy supervisors and civilian contractors.
  • Quality control and testing technicians.
  • Clerical and administrative personnel.

At some point, every one of these roles and responsibilities exposed shipyard workers to asbestos. There was no escaping asbestos exposure as so much of this material was contained in shipbuilding products before the 1980s. After the 1980s, the dangerous health risks from asbestos exposure became well-known, and the shipbuilding industry started to phase out asbestos.

Shipyard Workers and Asbestos Exposure

MJN Brief

American ships used to contain asbestos in almost every component from bow to stern. Fire protection was a primary concern, as all ships were heavily loaded with fuel and combustible equipment. Insulation was also vital, as sailors needed protection from extreme heat and cold while at sea.

Heat generated by engines and environmental conditions put seafarers in discomfort. The noise was another challenge onboard a ship. Part of proper shipbuilding was using the right materials to create safe and comfortable vessels. For seven decades, builders thought asbestos was their ideal choice for insulation against noise, as well.

Shipbuilders used millions of tons of asbestos for constructing thousands of ships. For most of these years, ships were hand-built with workers handling every component installed onboard vessels that ranged in size from tugboats to aircraft carriers.

Asbestos-containing components included:

  • Thermal insulation surrounding engines, boiler rooms and sleeping quarters.
  • Fire protection in engine rooms, hallways and galleys.
  • Pipe wrapping, gaskets and sealants.
  • Furnaces and incinerators.
  • Fireproof furniture fabrics, curtains and bedding.
  • Acoustic-controlled flooring and ceiling tiles.

Asbestos is relatively stable and safe once products made with it are installed, sealed and left alone. Dangerous exposure occurred when shipyard workers handled asbestos and materials containing asbestos during the installation process. Asbestos products often had to be cut, drilled, shaped and sanded to fit. This manipulation released clouds of tiny asbestos fibers into the air.

Shipbuilding roles placed workers in confined areas with poor ventilation. Many employees worked in environments polluted with airborne asbestos fibers for years. Not only were fabricators exposed to asbestos particles from materials they installed, all workers in the surrounding area inhaled air filled with those same asbestos fibers.

Shipyard Workers and Mesothelioma

Asbestos exposure is the only cause of mesothelioma, which is a deadly type of lung cancer. When shipyard workers inhaled asbestos fibers, the microscopic shards attached to the lung lining or mesothelium. Asbestos particles are impossible to expel. They permanently remain in the lungs creating scar tissue that eventually becomes malignant tumors. This process can take anywhere from ten to fifty years to occur. During that period, many former shipyard workers had no idea they were at serious risk of developing mesothelioma.

Health dangers from long-term asbestos exposure were known for many years. There’s ample proof that the Roosevelt Administration knew about airborne asbestos fiber exposure to shipyard workers and the potentially devastating disease called mesothelioma. There’s also proof of the American federal government conspiring with asbestos producers to cover-up the problem. They feared that widespread knowledge of the danger would affect vital wartime ship production.

Compensation for Shipyard Workers with Mesothelioma

If you’re a shipyard worker who developed mesothelioma from workplace asbestos exposure, you are entitled to compensation. Money is available to cover your medical expenses, income loss and potential punitive awards from negligent asbestos product manufacturers. Families may file claims for their relatives with mesothelioma as well as wrongful death lawsuits.