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Shipyards are one of the most prominent job sites associated with high levels of asbestos exposure. Asbestos was used frequently throughout vessels, construction, equipment and products used on shipyards, mainly for durability and fireproofing. Primarily from the 1930s to the 1980s, shipyard workers and members of the U.S. Navy faced asbestos exposure at shipyards. However, exposure has continued over the years due to aging asbestos products and vessels that are still in use.

01. Asbestos at Shipyards

Asbestos Use at Shipyards

Before the dangers of asbestos were widely known, it was considered a cheap, reliable solution for durability, heat resistance and fireproofing in the shipbuilding industry. American warships and other navy vessels, like aircraft carriers and cruisers, operate with boilers, turbines, pumps, incinerators and other heavy-duty equipment that relied on asbestos construction for safe, long-term use. Engine rooms, in particular, have been problem areas with high concentrations of asbestos. Asbestos insulation was also used throughout ship walls, within boiler rooms and as pipe insulation for the pipe coverings and pipe linings of steam pipes and water pipes. This allowed materials to withstand high temperatures without catching fire.

Vessels frequently underwent construction and repairs, causing wear and tear or damage to asbestos materials. As a result, asbestos fibers easily became airborne, then posing a risk of asbestos exposure. Below deck, ventilation was extremely poor. This allowed asbestos dust to collect in small areas, making the fibers even more concentrated and leading to a higher risk of exposure. Veterans and shipyard workers alike faced frequent exposure because of the extent of asbestos use throughout these vessels.

Shipyards with a high potential of asbestos exposure include the following:

  • Seward Marine industrial Center
  • Seward Ship’s Drydock
  • Atlantic Dry Dock
  • Bellinger Shipyard
  • Gulf Marine Repair
  • Hendry Corporation
  • Hooker’s Point Yard
  • Mayport Naval Station
  • Offshore Shipbuilding
  • Pensacola Shipyard
  • Tampa Bay Shipbuilding
  • Baltimore Marine Industries
  • Bethlehem Steel Sparrows Point Shipyard
  • Curtis Bay Shipyard
  • Key Highway Shipyard
New Jersey
New York
  • American Shipbuilding Company
Rhode Island
South Carolina
  • American Bridge Shipyard
  • AMFELS Shipyard – Brownsville
  • Barbas Cut Docks
  • Bloodworth Shipyard
  • Brown Shipbuilding Company
  • Consolidated Shipyard
  • Consolidated Steel Shipbuilding
  • Galveston Docks
  • Houston Shipyards
  • Kane Shipbuilding
  • Naval Station Ingleside
  • Orange Shipbuilding Company
  • Port Adams Shipyard
  • Texas Boats of Freeport
  • Todd Shipyards Corporation
Washington, D.C.
  • Washington Navy Yard
02. Occupational Risk

Shipyard Workers and Mesothelioma Risk

During the 1932 Depression, asbestos use in the United States totaled around 197 million pounds, annually. This tripled to around 633 million by 1937, and during World War II, use of asbestos averaged 783 million pounds each year. Over 1,400 million pounds of asbestos were used by the early Cold War years, finally decreasing in the mid-1970s. With the increased risk of asbestos use during wartime, veterans that served during World War II are particularly likely to develop an asbestos illness.

Aside from active Navy personnel and Navy veterans, there are many others that have worked in shipyards including shipbuilders, maintenance workers and repairmen, all of which have potentially been exposed to asbestos.

Shipbuilders came into contact with asbestos when using asbestos-containing construction materials. Maintenance workers and repairmen have been exposed when repairing ships themselves and when repairing boilers and other machinery onboard the ships. Current Navy members and Navy veterans were exposed when asbestos products were disturbed on the ship, especially when working below decks in close, poorly ventilated quarters. Risks of exposure persist today with old ships still in use or being maintained for historical purposes.

If microscopic asbestos fibers are inhaled or ingested, they become lodged in bodily tissues, causing irritation and potentially leading to asbestos-related diseases. Cases of asbestosis, lung cancer and asbestos cancer have been reported from shipyard workers and Navy veterans, but a disease of particular concern has been malignant mesothelioma. Caused by asbestos exposure, mesothelioma symptoms can take decades to develop. As a result, many veterans are only just being diagnosed with the cancer, years after serving. Today, veterans still account for about one-third of all mesothelioma diagnoses.

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