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
- 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.