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Bath Iron Works, a shipyard and shipbuilding company in Bath, Maine, was first established in 1884. Since its founding, the company has built a variety of commercial and military vessels used by the U.S. Navy, many of which likely contained asbestos-containing materials. Up until about 1980, ships of the time were often built utilizing a variety of asbestos materials for insulation, boilers, gaskets and more.

Research has shown asbestos products could be found essentially anywhere throughout the vessels. As a result, thousands of workers were at risk of inhaling or ingesting airborne asbestos, and may still face the health impacts of exposure for many years. Bath Iron Works (BIW), a subsidiary of General Dynamics, still operates from Bath today, with an estimated workforce of about 6,000 people.

Bath Iron Works and Asbestos Exposure

At the company’s peak in 1944, the company employed 12,000 shipbuilders. In addition to those working in the construction or repair of the ship, U.S. Navy veterans also faced asbestos exposure from these vessels. Shipyard workers and veterans would typically work and interact with asbestos materials without any kind of protection, unknowingly releasing the microscopic fibers into the air. With such close quarters, any asbestos fibers released into the air could also become heavily concentrated easily. Bath Iron Works and numerous other shipyards put thousands of workers and their loved ones at risk of exposure every day on the job.

Even after use of asbestos on ships discontinued around 1980, Bath Iron Works faced complaints from workers about potential asbestos exposure. In 1987, the Occupational and Safety Health Administration (OSHA) fined the company $4.2 million for unsafe working conditions, including exposure to asbestos and other potential toxins. Federal inspectors noted over 3,000 instances in which the company did not properly abide by federal standards.

Notably, inspectors found an area that was marked as asbestos-free that actually contained asbestos dust, with readings of up to 40%. Records also indicate that employees who were involved in asbestos cleanup or working with asbestos materials did not have the appropriate protective equipment to prevent exposure. Due to these and other issues of noncompliance, OSHA fined Bath Iron Works with the largest amount to be charged against a single employer at the time.

Asbestos Litigation Against Bath Iron Works

With so many employees at risk of asbestos exposure on the job, Bath Iron Works has faced numerous lawsuits for asbestos-related diseases like mesothelioma.

One of the first and most notable lawsuits against the company came in 1978 from the widow of Blaine Austin, who developed pleural mesothelioma as a result of his employment with Bath Iron Works. Austin worked as a painter and cleaner for the company from 1952 to 1976. He typically followed behind pipefitters, cleaning up after their work, which regularly entailed sweeping up asbestos dust. Austin was diagnosed with mesothelioma in 1976 and died the following year.

His widow filed mesothelioma lawsuits against several manufacturers of asbestos products, as well as Bath Iron Works. Raybestos-Manhattan Inc. and Unarco Industries Inc were the only two defendants to not settle outside of court. In the 1981 lawsuit, some of Austin’s claims were precluded because of Maine’s products liability law. All parties, including Blaine Austin, were found to be negligent for the use of asbestos in the products and Austin failing to use proper safety precautions while handling these products. Under Maine’s laws, Austin was not granted compensation.

Some time following the trial, however, Maine’s product liability law was updated, stating that a plaintiff could only be denied compensatory damages if they or the deceased are deemed to be equally at fault as the defendant. With this in mind, Austin was allowed a retrial and won the case with $323,456.06 awarded in damages.

Around the same time as Austin’s lawsuit, records show Bath Iron Works and another nearby shipyard faced around 140 similar cases filed against them. In recent years, Bath Iron Works has continued to face various asbestos lawsuits from employees.

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