De Laval Steam Turbine Company History
For much of the 20th century, De Laval Steam Turbine was one of the world’s top suppliers of steam turbines – machines that create electricity by shooting pressurized steam at a system of blades to make them spin. The company was named after Gustaf de Laval, known as the “Thomas Edison of Sweden,” who in 1890 invented a new type of steam turbine that accelerated the steam to a high speed before running it against the turbine’s blades. The result was a turbine that was simpler and less expensive than previous versions.
Incorporated in 1901, De Laval Steam Turbine went on to become a major world supplier of steam turbines, as well as gears, centrifugal pumps, compressors and blowers. The company won millions of dollars in contracts from the U.S. military, outfitting hundreds of ships with turbines and gears during World Wars I and II. These military contracts helped De Laval grow quickly. By 1955, the company had sales offices in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Cuba, Israel, Spain and beyond.
De Laval has changed hands several times in the past 50 years. In 1963, the company was purchased by Transamerica Corp., a large, San Francisco-based insurance and financial services firm. The company was turned over to shareholders in 1987 and renamed Imo Industries. Now owned by Colfax Corporation, Imo remains a pump manufacturer today with plants in North Carolina and Kentucky.
Products Manufactured by De Laval Steam Turbine that Contained Asbestos
Turbines often included a tough mineral component known as asbestos, a substance found in large deposits in nature. Asbestos is extremely strong and is a highly effective fire retardant, so starting in the late 1800s, it became the go-to mineral for machinery that produced heat or electricity. Steam turbines generate a great deal of heat as they operate, so asbestos was used to keep them running at a safe temperature. Asbestos was also used in packing materials used to box and ship turbines and other products.
Asbestos was especially prevalent in the shipbuilding industry, where the material was used to insulate ships’ heat-producing components. Thousands of tons of asbestos were used during World War II to wrap ships’ pipes and line their boilers, engines and turbines.
Unfortunately, for many years, the public was unaware that asbestos could be dangerous to the health of those who worked around it. Today, though, the health risks associated with asbestos are widely known. People who breathe airborne asbestos fibers are at risk of developing serious diseases like mesothelioma cancer and asbestosis.
Imo Industries maintains that it never itself manufactured or sold products made with asbestos. But the company has been the target of numerous lawsuits by workers who say they were injured by products made by its predecessor, De Laval Steam Turbine. In keeping with common practice of the time, turbine engines built by De Laval were wrapped in insulation that contained asbestos at least into the 1960s.
De Laval Steam Turbine products that may have contained asbestos or asbestos-containing parts include (but are not limited to):
- De Laval Main Feed Booster Pump
- Centrifugal Pump Packaging
Occupations at Risk for Asbestos Exposure
People who worked in factories where De Laval Steam Turbine’s machines were built could have had their health compromised by breathing hazardous asbestos fibers. The asbestos-laden turbines also posed a danger to anyone who operated them. Hundreds of United States Navy ships were outfitted with De Laval’s turbines, so anyone working aboard those vessels may have been affected.
Unfortunately, it is not only factory workers and seamen who were affected by asbestos in De Laval Steam Turbine’s machines. A worker’s family members may also be at risk if they came into contact with asbestos second-hand. Because asbestos fibers have been known to cling to clothing, anyone who washed or handled asbestos-covered work clothes could be at risk of serious health problems.
It can take decades for symptoms of mesothelioma to begin to appear – sometimes as long as 50 years. This means that, sadly, survival rates for the disease are very low. Take the time to learn more about the risk factors and treatment of the disease.
As of January 2011, Imo Industries has been named as co-defendants in numerous cases of alleged asbestos exposure worldwide. Plaintiffs in these cases argue that De Laval’s products exposed them to dangerous levels of airborne asbestos particles, causing disease and even death. Some people argue that the manufacturers of turbines and other machines – as well as one of their largest clients, the U.S. government – knew that asbestos was dangerous for years, but kept that information secret from their employees and those that operated their products.Sources
“Imo Industries, Inc. – Company History”
Harvard Business School Lehman Brothers Collection: “De Laval Turbine Inc.”