Situated in Bay City, Michigan, along the Saginaw River, Defoe Shipbuilding Company was one of the smaller-sized vessel repair and construction yards during World War II. While the shipyard helped the U.S. Navy and war effort, workers often experienced exposure to asbestos on the job.
About Defoe Shipbuilding Company
Initially known as Defoe Boat and Motor Works, the Defoe Shipbuilding was founded in 1905 and saw its beginnings as a shipbuilding facility and doing work in repairs, specifically knock-down and gasoline-fueled ships.
Around a decade later, the U.S. Navy helped the shipyard expand into constructing and repairing various vessels, including private yachts, commercial vessels, and government vessels. The shipyard eventually built destroyers, minesweepers, and destroyer transports for the military during World War II.
One of the yachts built was named Barbara Anne by then-president Dwight Eisenhower. The shipyard also built another yacht named Honey Fitz by former President John F. Kennedy, who named the vessel after his maternal grandfather.
From 1939 to 1945, Defoe Shipbuilding constructed 154 vessels for the U.S. Navy.
Vessel construction and repair continued after the war, and workers also began focusing on bulk carriers. Work continued for the shipyard until it permanently closed its doors in 1976.
Asbestos and Defoe Shipbuilding
Asbestos use at most U.S. shipbuilding and repair yards is not a secret anymore. Prior to strict regulations placed on asbestos use by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), most shipyards relied heavily on asbestos, a toxic set of minerals known to cause life-threatening diseases.
At Defoe, employers knew of asbestos dangers as early as 1944, when the U.S. Maritime Commission filed a report on the known risks. The report was created specifically for shipbuilders, as most of them worked daily around asbestos. Pipefitters and those who worked around insulation, such as boiler workers, were especially at risk.
The report urged employers to ensure workers wore protective gear at all times and provided helpful tips and suggestions on how to reduce the chances of workers inhaling asbestos fibers. Most shipyards, however, didn’t fully adhere to the recommendations and instead concentrated on pushing their workers to build vessels quickly.
Defoe Shipbuilding Company workers not only worked around asbestos daily, but many workers operated in small spaces without proper ventilation. This increased the chances of the workers developing an asbestos-related disease.
A number of workers in shipyards did develop asbestos diseases many years later. The diseases could be connected to the times the workers spent at shipbuilding and repair companies.
The most common disease associated with asbestos exposure is malignant mesothelioma. There is currently no cure for the disease, and it develops after microscopic asbestos fibers become lodged inside the body and attach themselves to the linings of the major organs.
Over time, the lining can become scarred and damaged, leading to cancerous cells and tumors.
It’s essential for anyone who worked in the shipbuilding industry to get regular medical checkups. Be sure to tell your physician if you’ve ever experienced asbestos exposure.
Defoe Shipbuilding Today
Defoe Shipbuilding officially ended its operations in 1976 due to the Navy contracts expiring. The shipyard later became the site for H. H. Hirschfield & Sons scrapyard, until more recently, when OmniSource, Inc bought it out.Get Your FREE Mesothelioma Packet
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