Shipyard Workers and Asbestos Exposure
Working in a shipyard comes with a number of potential dangers, including physical injuries from equipment, falling objects, or vehicle and machinery accidents. Shipyard employees are also at an increased risk for exposure to asbestos. This natural mineral is comprised of lightweight fibers that can be easily inhaled when they become airborne. Once inhaled, these microscopic fibers can cause tissue damage over time, potentially leading to lung cancer, mesothelioma, asbestosis, and other illnesses.
Asbestos has long been a common element of shipbuilding. From the boiler room to cabin ceiling tiles, shipbuilding has taken advantage of the lightweight, strong, fire resistant mineral to make ships safer. Unfortunately, this safety measure has backfired, exposing millions of industry workers to this dangerous mineral with many developing devastating and deadly illnesses.
Shipyards and Asbestos
The United States became a major center for ship building during World War II. The shipbuilding boom began with naval ships but continued into peacetime with ships constructed for transport and commerce. This booming industry required many workers. Until updated asbestos regulations in the late 1970s, millions of people working in shipyards were exposed to asbestos.
Shipyards have a long history of asbestos use. This natural mineral has been used extensively in nearly all components of the ships. Asbestos is inexpensive, abundant, lightweight, strong, and naturally resists heat and fire. These properties made it seemingly-perfect for ship building. Ships need materials that are strong but not heavy. Also, using materials that resist the spread of fire is essential since shipboard fires can be extremely dangerous, especially at sea.
Asbestos on ships could be found in concrete and floor tiling, doors, wall panels, sealants and glues, gaskets, around pipes, boiler cladding, furnace firebricks, welding materials, and insulation. Asbestos was even used in safety equipment and protective clothing.
Exposure to asbestos in shipyards occurred extensively in the past. After asbestos was determined to be a health risk, legislation passed in the 1970s restricted its use and ensured workers were protected by safety regulations, training, and equipment. Shipyard employees that were potentially exposed to asbestos on the job include welders, electricians, and those who operated machinery or made repairs. Even those workers who moved asbestos-containing materials from one part of a shipyard to another were likely exposed to asbestos.
Many shipyards are now known to have exposed workers to asbestos over a period of many years. While these cases have been documented, there are likely many more that have gone undocumented. Workers at both naval shipyards and non-naval shipyards were exposed.
Current Shipyard Workers at Risk
Extensive 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 they handled materials directly or worked around it. However, modern shipbuilders are still at risk. Asbestos regulations limit the use of this mineral, but it has not been completely banned. While there are bans on spray-on asbestos insulation, asbestos can still be used in other types of insulation.
Current shipyard workers are at risk of being exposed to asbestos used in new materials and new ships. However, there is a bigger risk from older ships. Repairs, maintenance, and restoration often exposes old asbestos materials, causing loose fibers to enter the air as dust. For example, cutting into pipe insulation, removing ceiling tiles, or dismantling an old boiler can expose old asbestos and send fibers into the air where they can be inhaled by workers.
Numerous studies have been conducted with shipyard workers to determine the amount and effects of asbestos exposure in this population. Studies have found that an overwhelming number of shipyard employees have asbestos fibers in the tissue of their lungs and chest cavities. These workers also 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 asbestos dangers to light and led to better regulations to protect workers.
Many shipyard employees have filed lawsuits to seek justice and compensation for illnesses resulting from 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 and owner of oil tankers the man worked on in the 1960s and 1970s. The court ruling found Exxon knew about harmful asbestos on its ships but did nothing to warn workers.
Another successful lawsuit was filed by the family Puget Sound Naval Shipyard employee. The man was employed to remove asbestos insulation from older ships. The judge in the case decided that the Foster Wheeler Corporation was negligent in the man’s death, because they failed to warn workers of the risks of asbestos.
There were many companies that manufactured shipping materials that contained asbestos. Johns Manville was one of the earliest companies to produce asbestos-containing materials for shipbuilding. Because asbestos was used so extensively in shipbuilding in the past, many of these companies have since gone bankrupt. Johns Manville was the first to file for bankruptcy. When it did, it also formed one of the first asbestos trust funds. These trust funds are organized to provide money for ongoing personal injury cases related to asbestos products. More than $4 billion have been paid out so far.
Shipyards have always been dangerous places to work. However, shipyard workers should not have to worry about asbestos or the illnesses that can come as a result of exposure. Current regulations limit use of this dangerous mineral but have come too late for thousands of workers who developed mesothelioma, asbestosis, or lung cancer. These workers suffered because of asbestos, and many companies have paid a high financial price for it.
Page Edited by Dave Foster
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