Shipyard Workers

Shipyard workers dedicate their careers to creating military and merchant marine vessels, but this dedication may cost them their lives. Shipbuilding exposed workers to asbestos, which can cause mesothelioma and other illnesses decades later. Many shipyard workers are only just now seeing the consequences of their work with asbestos.

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Shipyard Workers and Asbestos Exposure

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

Shipbuilding was once one of America’s largest industries and largest employers. Starting with World War II, there was an enormous demand for U.S. military ship production and increasing the merchant marine fleet.

Shipyard workers knew asbestos was: 

  • Abundant and cheap
  • Easy to install
  • Fire resistant
  • Non-corrosive
  • Thermally inert

Heat generated by engines and environmental conditions put seafarers in discomfort. Heat control, fire protection, and rust prevention were paramount concerns for shipbuilders, and asbestos solved these problems.

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.

What many shipyard workers didn’t know was the long-term health risks associated with asbestos exposure.

How Shipyard Workers Were Exposed to Asbestos

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, but all workers in the surrounding area inhaled air filled with those same asbestos fibers.

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 From Bow to Stern

American ships used to contain asbestos in almost every component. 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.

Asbestos products often had to be cut, drilled, shaped, and sanded to fit. This manipulation released clouds of tiny asbestos fibers into the air.

Asbestos Products Used in Shipbuilding

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 products included:

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

Shipyard Worker Careers

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:

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

At some point, every one of these roles and responsibilities exposed shipyard workers to asbestos. There was no escaping asbestos exposure. So much of this material was contained in shipbuilding products before the 1980s.

Shipyard Workers in World War II

At the peak of World War II, over 4.5 million Americans were shipyard workers, meaning they could have been at risk of asbestos exposure.

After the 1980s, the dangerous health risks from asbestos exposure became well-known, and the shipbuilding industry started to phase out asbestos.

Shipyard Worker Health Risks

Asbestos exposure is the only cause of mesothelioma, a deadly cancer that affects the lining of the lung.

When shipyard workers inhaled asbestos fibers, the microscopic shards attached to the lung lining tissue and were impossible to expel. They permanently remain in the lungs creating scar tissue that eventually becomes mesothelioma tumors.

Mesothelioma can take 20-50 years to develop. During that period, many former shipyard workers had no idea they were at serious risk of developing the disease.

Help for Mesothelioma Victims

If you’re a shipyard worker who developed mesothelioma from workplace asbestos exposure, you may be eligible for financial compensation.

Legal settlements and asbestos trust fund claims can help 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.

Additionally, Navy veterans may be eligible for VA benefits, which cover their medical costs and provide other types of compensation.

Our Justice Support team can help veterans connect to legal options and file for VA benefits. Learn about all the ways we can 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: September 5, 2019

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