Shipyards were some of the most significant users of asbestos and had the highest amounts of exposure to their employees. Particularly during the building and repair of grand Navy ships and other war vessels in America, many shipyard and Navy workers were often in contact with large boilers, insulation for walls, pipes, gaskets and turbines covered in the harmful toxin.
History of Shipyards in America
At one time, shipyards were the largest employers in the United States. There were hundreds of thousands of shipyard workers throughout the county. They were integral to building and running large naval vessels that were necessary for the trade, development and defense of the nation.
The materials in shipbuilding progressed from the original wood to steel with the arrival of the Industrial Revolution. By the end of the 19th century, the shipyards moved to the almighty steam engine and began building steel steamers in droves.
Many of these steel steamers were intended to transport cargo and people, called merchant marines, and others were warships for the Navy.
Asbestos Use in Shipyards
Originally, wood and coal were the ultimate sources of heat energy for steam power. However, by the mid-20th century, oil was increasingly employed instead. Ships were now powered by diesel. It became necessary to insulate the vessels from extreme heat and sound and ensure they were protected from combustion and fire damage.
As soon as this necessity arose, asbestos began its course in the shipyard industries. The toxin was valued for its incredible heat-resistant qualities as well as its sound insulating properties. Additionally, asbestos-related materials did not corrode or wear down in the sea, and they were not electrically conductive, rendering them as highly sought out materials for shipbuilding.
Specific uses for asbestos in Navy shipyards included:
- Insulation surrounding boilers and engines
- Wrapping high-pressure pipes
- Heat-proofing the sleeping areas
- Kitchen galleys and corridors in the interior of the ships
- Heat and fire-proofing the intended protective clothing
- Paint and glue
- Flooring and ceiling materials for further insulation and soundproofing
The ships weren’t the only objects built with asbestos-containing materials. Nearly all parts of the shipyard worksites used the toxin, meaning that workers and their families were likely to have been exposed. It’s unfortunate that dockyard buildings, as well as personal housing constructed for the employees and their families, contained asbestos.
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Workers Exposed in Shipyards
Near the middle of the 20th century, the shipyard companies and governments became increasingly aware of the dangers of asbestos exposure. However, World War II was approaching and the information was kept from the workers in an attempt to continue necessary Navy work.
Some examples of the types of jobs that put shipyard workers at risk included:
- Naval architects
- Nautical and structural engineers
- Electrical engineers
- Boiler workers
- Naval officers
- Civilian contractors
- Maintenance workers
- Clerical workers
- Government officials and inspectors.
After the asbestos-containing materials were built into the naval ships they were not harmful. However, the act of constructing a naval vessel composed primarily of asbestos materials was highly dangerous.
Any individual working with the toxin would have been at risk of being exposed to the airborne asbestos fibers. If a shipyard worker inhaled these small fibers, the tiny shards would remain in the lining of their lung. Since asbestos fibers are not able to break down as normal airborne particles, the asbestos fibers create dangerous scar tissue, which can turn into mesothelioma.
The courageous men and women who continue to serve in the United States Navy are still at a risk of asbestos exposure, even past the shipyards, as many ships built between World War I and the Vietnam War are still in use today.
A large number of naval ships still contain asbestos from decades ago, when shipbuilding was at its prime at the beginning of the twentieth century. The United States Navy has reported that there are actions in the works to test for and remove the remaining asbestos on ships that are currently still active and in use.
Compensation for Asbestos Exposure in Shipyards
Shipyard workers who developed mesothelioma from asbestos exposure in their workplace can claim compensation. There is compensation available for lost income, punitive damages, as well as any medical expenses incurred as a result of the disease. The victims’ families are able to request compensation on their behalf, and if mesothelioma has resulted in death, the families are able to file lawsuits for wrongful death cases.