The Richmond Shipyards built by construction genius Henry J. Kaiser, brought assembly-line techniques to the ship building industry. During their short five years in existence, the four shipyards in the Richmond, California area broke several ship building records.
Even the first of the four shipyards went up in record time. Kaiser signed a deal with Great Britain, promising 60 Ocean class steamers, on December 20, 1940. With that contract in hand, Kaiser planned the entire operation from the ground up. The same dedicated men who built the Hoover Dam and Grand Coulee Dam built a complete shipyard and the first Ocean class steamer in only 80 days.
Production continued at this frantic pace until the end of the war in 1945. Three more shipyards were added in the Richmond area over the next two years. Between 1941 and 1945, these four shipyards built 747 ships including transport ships, cargo ships, frigates, aircraft carriers and the landing ship tanks that made the D-Day invasion of Europe successful.
The speed with which the ships were built did come with a cost. While the asbestos insulation was rough cut to fit the ships' boiler rooms and hot pipes in well ventilated workshops, the custom work was done in the tight quarters of the ship itself.
The men and women who installed the asbestos insulation earned the nickname "snowbirds" because the dust from California's asbestos beds is naturally white. Wearing masks or other protective gear was unheard of, so both men and women breathed the dust all day and then carried asbestos dust home to their families in their hair and clothing.
Kaiser's Richmond Shipyards were closed at the end of the war. In the years that followed many former workers didn't realize that their lung ailments and lung ailments in their children and spouses had any connection to the years they spent helping the war effort. Many of the symptoms of asbestos exposure mimicked other disease symptoms. The filling of the lungs with fluid was mistaken for pneumonia. Pain in the chest was confused with angina or other heart ailments. The cancer, mesothelioma, was usually caught too late to treat.
Awareness of the problems associated with asbestos exposure has gained increased exposure since the EPA banned its use in 1987. Shipyards remain one of the primary exposure sites because old ships often contain asbestos insulation in boiler rooms and engine rooms. Today's safety methods reduce the risk of inhaling asbestos fibers, but extreme caution is required to prevent collateral exposure. Showering and changing clothing is now standard procedure after handling asbestos. This prevents collateral asbestos exposure in the home.