The Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corporation (BethShip) had several locations and used asbestos. This caused harmful exposure in many workers and illnesses in some. Founded in 1905, BethShip built many ships during World War II, when asbestos was prevalent.
About Bethlehem Shipyards and Asbestos
The Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corporation began in 1905 after Bethlehem Steel bought a shipyard called Union Iron Works in San Francisco.
BethShip grew and acquired more shipyards over the next several decades. By 1940 it had become one of the three biggest shipbuilding companies in the U.S., along with Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock and New York Shipbuilding Corporation.
The U.S. Navy and U.S. Maritime Commission were instrumental in BethShip’s growth during World War II. Its many shipyards built numerous ships for the war effort. BethShip constructed more ships for the war than any other company. It made more than 1,100 ships during this time, employing over 180,000 people. 
BethShip was particularly active during a time of peak asbestos use in shipbuilding, which led to exposure in many workers, sailors, and others.
Success for BethShip lasted for decades. Then in 1997, the business began focusing on steel. The Sparrows Point location began focusing on tunnel construction, ship repair work, and refurbishing cruise ships.
Bethlehem Shipyard Locations
BethShip owned and operated many shipyards all over the U.S., including in:
- Quincy, Massachusetts
- Staten Island, New York
- San Pedro, California
- Sparrows Point, Maryland
- Hingham, Massachusetts
- Boston, Massachusetts
- San Francisco, California
- Baltimore, Maryland
- Alameda, California
- Beaumont, Texas
- Hoboken, New Jersey
- Bayonne, New Jersey
- Port Arthur, Texas
How Was Asbestos Used at Bethlehem Shipyards?
Reports and records of lawsuits and compensation claims illustrate how many workers came into contact with asbestos while working at BethShip.
Asbestos Lagging and Sealants
Asbestos insulation, or lagging, was common on ships for decades. A lawsuit against Armstrong Contracting and Supply Corporation and other manufacturers details how a worker was exposed to asbestos from working around laggers at the Bethlehem Steel Key Highway Shipyard between 1964 and 1982.
Another plaintiff filed a suit against Eagle-Picher, which made asbestos cement for insulating purposes as well as cement with asbestos. He worked and came into contact with these products at several BethShip facilities.
Asbestos had many uses at Bethlehem Steel Corporation. Raybestos cloth, in particular, put many workers at risk.
Raybestos cloth was woven from asbestos yarns, then utilized in numerous things due to its extreme resistance to heat and fire. At BethShip, management stored the cloth in the storeroom, to which many workers had access.
Each time a piece of cloth was cut, microscopic asbestos fibers were released into the air, along with dust. Anyone in the vicinity risked inhaling the tiny fibers, known to be fatal over time.
Furthermore, asbestos blankets at BethShip put many workers in harm’s way, especially welders, who used the blankets frequently.
Who Was at Risk of Asbestos Exposure at BethShip?
Anyone working at BethShip who used asbestos textiles was at risk of exposure. Other occupations in which asbestos was used at BethShip include:
- Boiler room workers
- Ship repair workers
- Insulation installers
- General laborers
Many products that went into building ships contained asbestos, from textiles to insulation, rope, gaskets, and more. Manufacturers that shipped asbestos-containing products to BethShip included:
- Armstrong Contracting and Supply Corporation
- Pittsburgh Corning
- McCormick Asbestos Company
- Eagle-Picher Industries
How Did Asbestos Harm BethShip Workers?
Asbestos is a known carcinogen. When disturbed, asbestos fibers can be easily inhaled or ingested. The fibers are tiny, odorless, and undetectable by the human eye. Workers inhaled these fibers without knowing it at the time.
Once asbestos fibers are in the body, it’s literally impossible for the body to dispel all of them. Over time, the fibers attach to the lining of major organs in the body, such as the heart, lungs, and abdomen.
The disease can lie dormant for up to fifty years before the first symptoms arise. It’s important to seek regular medical checkups if you think you’ve been exposed to asbestos.
Were Safety Rules Ignored at BethShip?
The U.S. Navy provided a booklet in 1943 that had a guideline of safety standards when using asbestos. BethShip received the booklet, but the company was accused of ignoring the rules regarding the proper and safe use of asbestos.
BethShip also ignored the safety guidelines that stressed the importance of workers wearing safety gear while around asbestos, such as respirators. The company was also accused of neglecting to properly ventilate areas with asbestos.
According to the Baltimore Sun, BethShip closed its yard permanently after citing “several complex and significant issues.” Although the company didn’t elaborate at the time, an asbestos lawyer indicated that the business couldn’t solve the severe environmental problems.
“The environmental problems, I’m afraid, have not been completely solved.”
BethShip apparently had numerous issues during the times of its operations.
According to a July 3, 1995 report published in the Corporate Crime Reporter, Bethship-Sabine Yard in Port Arthur, Texas, was given a $500,00 criminal fine for illegally dumping known pollutants into the Sabine Neches Waterway.
The shipyard was ordered to pay “$1 million to the Southeast Texas Coastal Trust Fund, a fund entrusted to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation to increase the productivity of coastal wetlands and estuarine ecosystems in and near the Sabine Neches Waterway,” according to the report.
Bethlehem Shipyard Museum
Today the Bethlehem Shipyard Museum exists to “connect the past with the future by preserving the history of the industrialization of the San Francisco Bay Area,” according to its official website. It currently offers a full-time mobile museum, but reportedly a permanent exhibit is in the works.
If you or a loved one worked at a Bethlehem Shipyard and now have a diagnosis of mesothelioma, contact an asbestos law firm to find out what you can do about it.Get Your FREE Mesothelioma Packet
Page Written by Mary Ellen Ellis
Mary Ellen Ellis has been the head writer for Mesothelioma.net since 2016. With hundreds of mesothelioma and asbestos articles to her credit, she is one of the most experienced writers on these topics. Her degrees and background in science and education help her explain complicated medical topics for a wider audience. Mary Ellen takes pride in providing her readers with the critical information they need following a diagnosis of an asbestos-related illness.
Page Edited by Patient Advocate Dave Foster
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