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Asbestos Exposure in Ship Repair

Shipyards and ships are well known as sources of asbestos, a harmful mineral once used in many applications. Asbestos is linked to a number of serious health conditions, including incurable cancer, mesothelioma. Although we now know much more about the risks of being exposed to asbestos, it is still used in many ship materials. People who work in the building and repair of ships need to be aware of the risks and that they are still susceptible to asbestos exposure.

ship workers repairing ship

What is Asbestos?

Asbestos is a group of natural minerals that are mined out of the earth. It was used in various types of construction for thousands of years because of its resistance to fire, electricity, heat and to most chemicals.

With the building boom of the industrial revolution, the amount of asbestos used in ships and other types of construction skyrocketed. Nearly 200,000 tons of asbestos were used worldwide by 1920. The use of asbestos in ships over the years has been high compared to all other industries, putting shipbuilders and repairers at particular risk.

Danger of Asbestos Exposure

There are many reasons why ship repair workers should be concerned about asbestos exposure. When asbestos is friable, when it is not well encapsulated and can be easily crushed to release fibers, particles of the mineral can become airborne and be inhaled. These fibers lodge in the lungs and other tissues and cause damage.

Over time those fibers lodged in various tissues can lead to a number of serious health conditions. Most often the fibers stay in and around the lungs where they can cause asbestosis, lung cancer, or pleural mesothelioma. The fibers can also migrate and cause mesothelioma in other parts of the body including around the heart and the lining of the abdominal organs.

Mesothelioma is a particularly devastating type of cancer. It is often misdiagnosed or not diagnosed at all until it is in later stages. At this point, it’s hard to treat and the diagnosis represents a grim prognosis for former ship repair workers.

Shipyard Workers at Risk of Asbestos Exposure

Prior to 1979, when new regulations were put on the use of asbestos, asbestos was used extensively in the building and repair of ships. Workers in shipyards today are still at risk of exposure because many older ships are still in use and because, although these materials are not used as often as in the past, asbestos is still used in ships today.

A U.S. study that investigated the exposure and risk to ship repairers looked at 286 workers that had been working on ship repair for 30 years or more. Of these, 86 percent were found to have signs of asbestosis, an asbestos-related respiratory disorder. Five of the workers were found to have previously undiagnosed lung cancer.

International studies have found similar results when investigating the health of workers in ship repair. In an Italian study of 153 men that died from mesothelioma, most were found to have worked in or around ships. Ninety-nine worked in shipbuilding and repair and seven were dockworkers or longshoremen.

A more recent report in the U.S. found that the results of exposure to asbestos are continuing to be seen in ship repair workers and shipbuilders. Between 1990 and 1999, the second most often recorded industry on death certificates was ship building and ship repair when the cause of death was asbestosis. In 1999, the ship building and repairing industry had the most recorded fatalities from malignant mesothelioma.

Why Ship Repair Workers Face High Asbestos Exposure Risks

Shipping is not the only industry in which asbestos has been used extensively, but there are several factors that explain why ship workers are at a greater risk than workers in many other industries. One is simply the high use of the mineral in the building and repair of ships. In decades past it was used all over ships and in the putties and other materials used to make repairs.

Another factor is that blue and brown asbestos were most often used in ships and these are the most dangerous types of asbestos. Spraying, which is one of the most dangerous ways to apply asbestos and asbestos-containing materials, was used extensively in ship building.

Where Asbestos Is Found on Ships and in Ship Repair Materials

Especially in older ships, asbestos is found in nearly every corner. Concrete and tile flooring, ceiling panels and fire insulation materials, and even doors on ships often have asbestos. Other sources include electrical cables, gaskets, brake linings, boiler cladding, mooring ropes, welders’ gloves and curtains, firebricks in furnaces, and fireproof clothing for ship fire fighters. Repair materials for ships often contain asbestos too, including glues, sealants, and putties.

Asbestos that is used in ships and in ship repair does not have to be harmful. Asbestos is only dangerous when the fibers can become airborne. If they are well encapsulated in a material the asbestos poses no or low risk. Asbestos materials are used less often today and when they are used they are supposed to be well contained.

Where ship repairers get into trouble working in the industry today is when regulations aren’t followed or there is damage to otherwise encapsulated asbestos materials making them friable. For example, concrete with asbestos mixed in is considered safe and non-friable. Normal handling of that concrete will not crush it or expose the asbestos fibers. However, if the concrete is damaged or crumbling and an employer has not taken steps to have it safely repaired, workers are at risk of exposure to airborne fibers of asbestos.

If you work in ship repair and you have been exposed to asbestos due to employer or manufacturer negligence, you may be eligible for compensation. Many workers in various industries have sued after being diagnosed with asbestosis, mesothelioma, or other related conditions. A mesothelioma lawyer can help you figure out how to make your case or how to access mesothelioma trust funds.

Page edited by Dave Foster

Dave has been a mesothelioma Patient Advocate for over 10 years. He consistently attends all major national and international mesothelioma meetings. In doing so, he is able to stay on top of the latest treatments, clinical trials, and research results. He also personally meets with mesothelioma patients and their families and connects them with the best medical specialists and legal representatives available.

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