Although the U.S. shipbuilding industry successfully produced ships in diverse designs and purposes, every American shipyard once had a common problem. All shipyards exposed their workers to dangerous amounts of asbestos.
Shipbuilding materials turned from wood to steel with changes brought on by the Industrial Revolution. By the late 1800s, American shipyards switched from sail power to steam engines. Shipyards built steel steamers by the thousands. Some were merchant marine ships for transporting cargo and passengers. Many were naval warships designed for munitions and armaments.
Steam power first relied on wood and coal as their heat energy source to create steam for driving propulsion systems. That changed in the 1920s when oil became commonly used. These new diesel-powered vessels presented a similar challenge as older fossil-fueled ships did. That was insulating them against heat and noise as well as making them as fire resistant as possible.
Right about that time, asbestos began a seven-decade run in the shipyard business. Asbestos seemed the perfect shipbuilding material. It was exceptionally resistant to fire, worked as a superior product for thermal control and acted as an excellent sound deadener. Asbestos products were non-corrosive which was ideal for salty seagoing conditions. Electrical non-conductivity was another plus for installing asbestos onboard ships. Asbestos was easy to add to other products as a stabilizer. It was also widely available and inexpensive.
Asbestos-Containing Materials Used in Shipyards
Asbestos-containing materials, or ACMs, became the most widely used material in American shipyards in addition to metals like steel, copper and aluminum. ACMs found their way around the shipyard and covered vessels from stern to bow.
Some of the uses for ACMs in shipyards included:
- Rolled insulation around engines, boilers and generators.
- High-pressure pipe wrapping.
- Acoustic control in engine rooms and propulsion areas.
- Fireproofing materials throughout ships including halls, galleys and sleeping quarters.
- Protection in munition rooms.
- Gaskets and friction control devices.
- Fireproof protective clothing and upholstery fabrics.
- Floor and ceiling tiles.
- Paint, glue and adhesives.
- Welding rod coatings and flux additives.
Asbestos products were readily accessible in shipyards from the 1920s to the mid-1980s.
It wasn’t just ships constructed with ACMs. Every part of the shipyard facility used asbestos products. That included the dockyard buildings and housing built for workers and their families. Asbestos was in offices and machine shops as well as cafeterias and washrooms. There was no safe place where shipyard workers could escape asbestos exposure.
Shipyard Workers and Asbestos Exposure
Mesothelioma Justice Network Brief
dangers of exposure to asbestos were well-known by the 1930s. Many asbestos product producers and suppliers hid the fact that asbestos was a carcinogen or a cancer-causing agent. They put their profit interests before shipyard workers’ health.
Shipyard owners and government officials also knew asbestos exposure created a long-term health hazard. But with World War II coming on, this information was hidden for fear of affecting shipyard worker production.
Shipyard workers exposed to airborne asbestos fibers included:
- Naval architects and drafters.
- Structural, electrical, mechanical and nautical engineers.
- Government regulators and inspectors.
- Welders and metal fabricators.
- Electricians, plumbers and ventilation specialists.
- Insulation applicators.
- Painters, tilers and finishing tradespeople.
- Boilermakers, steamfitters and high-pressure pipe workers.
- Fabric technicians.
- Maintenance, janitorial and clerical staff.
- Naval officers, enlisted persons and civilian contractors.
Once ACMs were installed and secured in ships, they were relatively safe unless disturbed. The very process of building a vessel made with asbestos products created a working environment filled with dangerous airborne asbestos fibers. Working with ACMs created loose particles through sawing, drilling, cutting, sanding and shaping asbestos products.
When shipyard workers inhaled these tiny asbestos particles, the sharp mineral-based shards stuck in their lung linings or mesothelium. Asbestos fibers can’t break down as organic contaminates do. They stay in the mesothelium forever. Over time, asbestos fibers create scar tissue which becomes the deadly disease known as mesothelioma.
There’s no other cause of mesothelioma besides exposure to airborne asbestos fibers. Unfortunately, tens of thousands of American shipyard workers suffered asbestos exposure and are at high risk of developing mesothelioma. There’s no known cure for mesothelioma. However, mesothelioma victims can file a claim for compensation.
Compensation for Shipyard Workers with Mesothelioma
American shipyard workers who developed mesothelioma from workplace asbestos exposure can claim for compensation. Funds are available for lost income, punitive damages and medical expenses. Mesothelioma victims’ families can request on their behalf. They can also file lawsuits for wrongful death cases.