Bath Iron Works Company History
From its mile-long shipyard in Bath, Maine, along the edge of the Kennebec River, Bath Iron Works has been building vessels for more than a century. The company was founded by General Thomas W. Hyde, a Civil War veteran who opened a foundry after the war to make iron hardware to supply Bath’s many shipyards. But Hyde really had his sights on iron shipbuilding, too, and in 1884 started Bath Iron Works.
Early on, the shipyard focused on building private yachts, but it won its first contract for two gunboats for the U.S. Navy in 1890; the company followed those up with a 2,500-ton steel passenger steamer two years later. In 1899, Bath Iron Works started construction of the battleship “Georgia.” It took five years to build and wound up being the fastest ship in her class and the fastest battleship in the Navy.
Bath Iron Works built fishing trawlers, freighters and yachts, but most of its work continued to come from Navy contracts. At its peak, the shipyard was making one-quarter of the Navy’s destroyers launched during World War II. Demand dropped after the war, though, and the following decades brought many management changes and highs and lows in production.
In 1987, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) fined Bath Iron Works $4.2 million for conditions that endangered the health of workers, including exposure to asbestos and raw sewage. Investigators tallied a list of more than 3,000 instances in which the company failed to meet federal standards, including the presence of asbestos-heavy dust and failure to make respirators available to employees. At the time, the fine was the largest ever to be charged against a single employer.
Today, Bath Iron Works continues to be a “full-service shipyard specializing in the design, building and support of complex surface combatants for the U.S. Navy.” Since 1995, the company has been a part of General Dynamics, a leader in business aviation, combat vehicles and marine systems. As of January 2011, the shipyard employed 5,700 workers – down from 10,500 in 1995.
Products Manufactured by Bath Iron Works that Contained Asbestos
As far as asbestos exposure is concerned, one of the most hazardous places a person could be was aboard a U.S. Navy ship. For many years, until the renovations of the 1980s, asbestos was used in numerous places aboard Naval vessels to protect them from fire. The substance was used as insulation on boilers and turbines, inside the ships’ walls and between decks, on pipes, and as an electrical insulator throughout the vessels. Anyone who manufactured or worked aboard one of these ships was all but guaranteed to come into contact with asbestos. According to one 1979 study, more than three-quarters of U.S. counties where shipyards were located showed increased reports of lung and larynx cancer.
It’s sadly ironic that asbestos was used aboard ships in hopes that it would curtail fires and save lives – because as we now know, exposure to the mineral is responsible for the deaths of thousands and thousands of people. Airborne asbestos is the cause; when the long, crystalline fibers that comprise this naturally occuring mineral are inhaled into a person’s lungs, they can cause a debilitating lung disease known as mesothelioma.
Asbestos products utilized in Bath Iron Works ships include, but are not limited to:
- Boiler Insulation
- Turbine Insulation
- Pipe Insulation
- Electrical Insulation
Occupations at Risk for Asbestos Exposure
Virtually anyone who worked on a Bath Iron Works ship – either at the shipyard during the construction process or at sea – was at a very high risk of being exposed to toxic asbestos fibers in the course of their work. Each type of work presented a different type of risk. For instance, installing insulation throughout the ship often required cutting and filing, which released large amounts of asbestos dust into the air. Once at sea, repairing boilers and turbines put seamen at risk under the ship’s deck, while those working on deck were threatened when gunfire or explosions punctured asbestos insulation in ships’ walls and sent clouds of asbestos dust spilling into the air.
Navy ships could be hazardous even after they are decommissioned. A 1997 Pulitzer Prize-winning article by the Baltimore Sun found scrapyard workers – people who worked in industries that bought old Navy ships and dismantled them for scrap – were being exposed to high levels of asbestos in their work. Workers were frequently required to rip asbestos insulation out of ships with their bare hands, and often failed to have proper protective gear.
And unfortunately, it isn’t just the workers who were put at risk. Asbestos is easily transferable from place to place due to its ability to cling to clothing, shoes and hair, so workers’ family members were often put at risk through secondhand exposure.
Occupations at risk of exposure to asbestos in Bath Iron Works ships include, but are not limited to:
- Shipyard workers
- Ship Scrapyard Workers
In the News
In March 2011, the U.S. Navy awarded a $28 million contract to Bath Iron Works for materials needed to build a second DDG-51 ship. News of the contract came just a few weeks after the shipyard laid off 130 people because of “workload adjustments” at the shipyard.
As of April 2011, numerous lawsuits had been filed against Bath Iron Works and its parent company, General Dynamics. Plaintiffs in these cases claim they suffered ill health effects from contact with asbestos in Bath Iron Works ships.Sources
General Dynamics Bath Iron Works
“OSHA Levies a Big Fine Against Bath Iron Works”
“Bath Iron Works Wins $28 Million Navy Contract”
“Maine’s Bath Iron Works to Cut 130 Jobs”
“Scrapping Ships, Sacrificing Men”