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Working in a shipyard puts workers at risk for a number of dangers, often physical injuries from equipment, falling objects, or vehicle and machinery accidents. These workers are also at a great risk for exposure to asbestos, a mineral with light, airborne fibers that can be inhaled and cause damage that leads to mesothelioma, asbestosis, and other illnesses.

Ships have long used asbestos in nearly every component. From the boiler room to the ceiling tiles in cabins, shipbuilding has taken advantage of the lightweight, strong, and heat and fire resistant mineral to make ships safer. Unfortunately this safety measure has backfired and exposed millions of workers in the industry, leaving some with devastating and deadly illnesses.

Shipyards and Asbestos

Beginning in the 1940s with World War II, the U.S. became a major center for ship building. The shipbuilding boom began with naval ships, but continued on with peacetime ships for transport and commerce. Such a booming industry required a lot of workers and until the updated regulations for asbestos took effect in the late 1970s, millions of people working in shipyards were exposed to asbestos.

Shipyards have a long history of asbestos use because this mineral has been used so extensively in nearly all components of the ships built and repaired in them. Asbestos is inexpensive and abundant. It is light, but strong, and it resists heat and fire. These properties made it the seemingly-perfect material for ship building. Ships needed to be made of materials that are strong but not too heavy and protecting ships from fire is essential as shipboard fires can be extremely dangerous, especially when vessels are out to sea.

Asbestos on ships could be found in concrete and floor tiling, in doors, in wall panels, in sealants and glues, in gaskets, around pipes, in boiler cladding, in furnace firebricks, in welding materials, in fire and heat insulation, in protective clothing, and in many more places and materials. Asbestos materials used to build and repair ships had to be delivered to shipyards where workers of all types handled it or were near it.

Past Exposure

The most extensive exposure to asbestos that occurred in shipyards is in the past. This is because he health effects of asbestos were finally discovered and legislation made in the 1970s ensured that its use would be restricted and that workers would be protected by safety regulations, training, and equipment. Workers in shipyards doing jobs ranging from welding and electrical work to operating machinery and making repairs were exposed, many for years. Even those workers who moved asbestos-containing materials from one part of a shipyard to another were likely exposed to fibers of asbestos.

Many shipyards are now known to have exposed workers to asbestos over a period of many years. These cases have been documented, but there are likely more that have gone undocumented. Workers at both naval shipyards and non-naval shipyards were exposed. Those workers breathed in fibers of asbestos, and in many of them, those fibers caused damage that decades later would result in very serious illnesses, like mesothelioma, lung cancer, and others.

Current Shipyard Workers at Risk

The height of asbestos use in ships and shipyards began with World War II and extended into the 1960s and early 1970s. Workers during that time period were put at the greatest risk of becoming ill because of handling and being around asbestos, but workers in shipyards today are still at risk. Asbestos regulations have since limited the use of this mineral, but have not completely outlawed it. There are regulations such as bans on spray-on asbestos insulation that is friable, or that can be crumbled easily. However, asbestos can still be used in insulation in other ways.

Current shipyard workers are at risk of being exposed to asbestos that is still used in new materials and new ships. The bigger risk, though, comes from older ships. Making repairs and doing maintenance and restoration on ships from an earlier time means risking exposing asbestos that is friable. Cutting into pipe insulation, removing ceiling tiles, or dismantling an old boiler—just a few examples—can expose old asbestos and send fibers into the air where they can be inhaled by workers.

Research

Numerous studies have been conducted with shipyard workers to investigate the amount and effects of asbestos exposure in this population. Studies have found that shipyard workers overwhelmingly have asbestos fibers in their lung and chest cavity tissues. These workers have also been found to have higher than typical rates of illnesses related to asbestos, like asbestosis and mesothelioma. Many of these studies were conducted in the 1960s and played an important role in bringing the dangers of asbestos to light. This in turn led to regulations in place today that help to protect workers.

Lawsuits

Many workers in shipyards have brought lawsuits over the years, seeking compensation and justice for the illnesses they suffered from because of asbestos exposure on the job. In 2011 a former employee of Newport News Shipbuilding received a settlement of $25 million. Exxon Corporation was the defendant in the suit, as the owner of oil tankers that the man worked on in the shipyard in the 1960s and 1970s. The ruling in the case found that Exxon knew about asbestos on its ships and that it could be harmful, but did not warn workers.

Another successful suit was brought by the family of a man who worked at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard for nearly four decades. The man worked with asbestos insulation, removing it from older ships. The judge in the case decided that the Foster Wheeler Corp. was responsible and was negligent in the man’s illness and death for failing to warn workers of the risks of working with asbestos.

Johns Manville

There were many companies that manufactured shipping materials that contained asbestos. One of the earliest companies that produced a lot of these materials was Johns Manville. So much asbestos was used in shipbuilding in the past and so many people harmed by it that most companies that provided those materials have since gone bankrupt. Johns Manville was one of the biggest and the first to file for bankruptcy. When it did, it also formed one of the first asbestos trust funds, a fund set up to provide money for ongoing personal injury cases related to their asbestos products. More than $4 billion have been paid out so far.

Shipyards have always been dangerous places to work and will continue to be, but what workers in these places should not have to worry about is asbestos. Current regulations limit the risk of becoming ill from asbestos-related conditions, but these came too late for thousands of workers who developed mesothelioma, asbestosis, or lung cancer. These workers suffered because of asbestos and many companies involved have paid a high financial price for it.

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