Although the U.S. shipbuilding industry successfully produced ships in diverse designs and purposes, every shipyard once had a common problem. All shipyards exposed their workers to dangerous amounts of asbestos.

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Shipyards were once one of America’s largest employers. Shipyard workers numbered in the hundreds of thousands, and they labored to assemble marine vessels of every size and configuration.

Steam-powered ships first relied on wood and coal as their heat energy source to create steam for driving propulsion systems.

That changed in the 1930s 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 in Shipbuilding
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.

Unfortunately, tens of thousands of American shipyard workers suffered asbestos exposure and are at high risk of developing deadly diseases like mesothelioma as a result.

Shipyard Workers and Asbestos Exposure

Working with asbestos 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.

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

While many asbestos-based 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.

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.

Did You Know?

The Risks of Asbestos Exposure Were Hidden

The dangers of exposure to asbestos were well-known by the 1930s. That said, the manufacturers of asbestos-containing products hid the risks from their customers, putting thousands of shipyard workers at risk.

Asbestos-Containing Products Used in Shipyards

Asbestos-containing materials became the most widely used material in American shipyards in addition to metals like steel, copper, and aluminum.

Asbestos-containing products found their way around the shipyard and covered vessels from stern to bow.

Some of the uses for asbestos 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 rods and flux additives

Did You Know?

Asbestos-Containing Products Were Widely Used

Asbestos-containing products were readily accessible in shipyards from the 1930s to the mid-1980s. Asbestos was easy to add to other products as a stabilizer. It was also widely available and inexpensive.

Asbestos-containing products were non-corrosive which was ideal for salty seagoing conditions. Electrical non-conductivity was another plus for installing asbestos onboard ships.

It wasn’t just ships constructed with asbestos. 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.

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.

We can tell you more about asbestos exposure, mesothelioma, and how to receive compensation if you worked in a shipyard. Download our free mesothelioma guide today.

Mesothelioma Support Team
Stephanie KiddWritten by:


Stephanie Kidd grew up in a family of civil servants, blue-collar workers, and medical caregivers. Upon graduating Summa Cum Laude from Stetson University, she began her career specializing in worker safety regulations and communications. Now, a proud member of the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA) and Editor-in-Chief of the Mesothelioma Cancer Network, Stephanie serves as a voice for mesothelioma victims and their families.

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