The Kaiser Shipyards were the result of construction genius Henry J. Kaiser's ability to win confidence. He had already proven himself an efficient contractor on the Hoover and Grand Coulee Dams, and he had prior experience building cargo ships for the U.S. Maritime Commission.
On December 20, 1940, Great Britain signed a contract with him to build 60 Ocean class steamers. He didn't even have a shipyard yet! But planning for the layout of the shipyard began within hours. They broke ground within a month and despite heavy rains that winter, the unions labored tirelessly to get the shipyard into production.
On April 14, 1941, they laid the first keel, only 78 days from breaking ground. Just two days later, the Ocean Vanguard launched. Despite the speed with which she was built, she proved herself a worthy vessel. She survived a collision on her maiden voyage to England.
Within the next two years, Kaiser built another three shipyards in Richmond and three shipyards on the Columbia River. His seven shipyards were known for the speed of construction. His streamlined production techniques enabled a yard to build an entire cargo ship in less than eight days. The seven shipyards combined averaged almost one ship per day.
The reason for Kaiser's success was his application of assembly line techniques to shipbuilding. He replaced the slower process of riveting plates with welding. When issues arose with welds snapping in arctic waters, he looked for modifications that would resolve the issue.
Between 1941 and 1945, 1,552 ships slid into the waters adjacent to his seven shipyards. They included transport ships, cargo ships, frigates, aircraft carriers and the landing ship tanks that proved so important for the D-Day invasion of Europe.
All this efficiency came at a cost to the workers in these shipping yards. Asbestos installers got the nickname "snowbirds" because they came off work so covered with asbestos dust. Speed was everything. Protection was seen as an unnecessary expense.
Kaiser's Richmond Shipyards were closed at the end of the war, so most people who were affected by asbestos in these particular shipyards have already passed away.
If you were a worker in one of these shipyards, you may have never realized that you are showing the symptoms of asbestos-related lung disease-shortness of breath, a dry cough, pain in the chest, fluid in the chest or lungs, weight loss, inability to sleep, husky voice and difficulty swallowing. The effects of breathing this toxic dust can take over 50 years to show up. You are also at greater risk for developing mesothelioma, a difficult to treat form of cancer.