Westinghouse Electric Corporation Company History
Westinghouse Electric Company has been a part of numerous industries – mainly related to power and electronics – since it was founded 125 years ago, in 1886, by the prolific inventor George Westinghouse. In its early days, Westinghouse Electric was a rival to Edison General Electric Company, the precursor to today’s General Electric, named after its influential founder Thomas Edison. In a time when Edison’s “direct current” electricity was the only game in town, Westinghouse introduced a new form of power – the “alternating current.”
The competition between the inventors was fierce, with patent wars and smear campaigns developing between the two. But Westinghouse scored two major victories in 1893: His company provided the generating system that powered the World’s Fair in Chicago and he won a contract to provide generators for the new hydroelectric power station in Niagara Falls. Still, mounting debt put the company in trouble, and in 1910 Westinghouse was ousted as its leader. He died four years later.
The company, though, continued to flourish, and as the decades went by, Westinghouse Electric became involved in very diverse areas of business. In the 1910s, the company became involved in wireless communication, and was one of several companies to band together to jump-start the field of commercial radio. By 1925, the company had several radio stations across the country, and broadcasting has remained a central part of Westinghouse’s business.
Westinghouse was at the forefront when electrical appliances for consumers grew in popularity in the 1920s. The company also went on to become a leading contractor for radar for the U.S. military, a leader in the field of nuclear power, and a supplier of reactors and jet engines for military submarines and airplanes. For a time, it was also a supplier of uranium for reactors, although that venture ended in a lawsuit – and a pricey settlement – when Westinghouse couldn’t meet its commitments.
In the 1980s, the company entered the field of robotics, and, in the largest communications company merger in history, expanded its reach in cable television by acquiring the cable giant Teleprompter Corporation in 1981. The company also won major military contracts under the Reagan administration on weapons like the F-16 fighter and B-52 bomber. In 1985, The Wall Street Journal listed Westinghouse as the country’s 13th largest defense contractor.
Westinghouse began to streamline in the 1990s, focusing less on consumer goods and more on technology, like turbines for power generators and radar for fighter jets. But the sales and acquisitions continued: In 1995, the company purchased CBS for $5.4 billion, and two years later, sold its defense business to Northrop Grumman for $3 billion. By 1997, Westinghouse had sold most of its non-broadcast operations, and renamed itself CBS Corporation. And in 1998, the company sold its remaining manufacturing asset – its nuclear power business – to BNFL, which sold to Toshiba in 2006, which still operates the business as Westinghouse Electric Corporation today.
Asbestos Exposure Risk at Westinghouse Electric Corporation
Several of the myriad industries in which Westinghouse Electric Corporation was active made use of a naturally occurring mineral called asbestos in their products. Use of the mineral was not uncommon, by any means. Beginning in the late 1800s, around the time of the Industrial Revolution, manufacturers discovered that asbestos could be used to solve many problems facing the country’s newly burgeoning industries. Asbestos was a natural insulator and fire retardant; it was strong, versatile and durable; it was easy to obtain from large mineral deposits in nature; and perhaps best of all, it was cheap. As a result, asbestos was added to thousands of products, ranging from building supplies to mechanical parts to cigarette filters.
What workers didn’t know at the time – and wouldn’t know until the 1970s – was that asbestos was also extremely hazardous to their health. The mineral is composed of long, thin, crystalline fibers – fibers that, once inhaled, can implant themselves in a person’s lungs and cause grave damage. Generally, products that utilized asbestos encased the fibers in another material, so when the products were intact, they were relatively safe. The problem arose when the products were being manufactured using raw asbestos fibers, or when the items began to grow brittle with age, releasing harmful asbestos dust into the air.
Various products made and used by Westinghouse Electric Corporation are believed to have contained asbestos. They include turbines and gaskets made for use in power lines, defense parts and other electronics; micarta, an asbestos-containing laminate used in ship bulkheads; as well as asbestos caulking paste and asbestos pads. Pipes running throughout Westinghouse factories were lined with asbestos insulation, and the company was known to use asbestos-laden packing materials as well.
One laborer who worked in a Westinghouse plant for 45 years recalled being surrounded by asbestos all day. “Sometimes we even used to throw it at each other – a snowball of factory muck,” the man later said. “We didn’t know it was dangerous.”
Westinghouse Electric Corporation products that are believed to have contained asbestos include (but are not limited to):
- Power lines/cables
- Micarta insulation (included in products like the Westinghouse D-C Motor)
- Asbestos caulking paste
- Asbestos pads
Occupations at Risk for Asbestos Exposure
With such a diverse line of products and companies, Westinghouse’s use of asbestos has impacted the lives of untold thousands of workers. Many of these individuals worked with asbestos day after day for their entire careers, while others’ exposure was much more limited. Unfortunately, no amount of asbestos exposure is safe.
People affected by asbestos in Westinghouse products include power plant workers or laborers who worked in Westinghouse manufacturing plants – whether or not they worked directly with asbestos. Just being in the same vicinity as asbestos dust is enough to put a person’s health at risk of serious respiratory diseases like mesothelioma cancer or asbestosis. Other occupations at risk include those who repaired or maintained Westinghouse products in the field. This could include military men and women who serviced asbestos-containing turbines, shipyard workers, and technicians who worked on power lines.
Unfortunately, the reach of Westinghouse’s asbestos-containing products was very large – and it did not stop with just the workers themselves. Their family members were also sometimes affected through secondhand contact with the mineral on the worker’s clothing, shoes and hair.
As of March 2011, Westinghouse Electric Corporation and CBS Corporation have been named as the defendant in thousands of asbestos-related lawsuits. Plaintiffs in these cases are generally workers, or family members of workers, who have had their health damaged by exposure to Westinghouse’s asbestos-containing products.
As of Dec. 31, 2002, the company had approximately 103,800 claims pending.
Author: Tara Strand
Senior Content WriterRead about Tara
Reviewer: Jennifer R. Lucarelli
Lawyer for Mesothelioma Victims and Their FamiliesRead about Jennifer
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