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Shipyard Workers and Asbestos Exposure

Shipyard Workers and Exposed Asbestos

History of Shipyard Workers

Two World Wars and a significant Cold War left many historical imprints upon the United States. The country quickly came to be recognized as a technological, economic and military powerhouse. As part of this growth, the US Navy experienced significant expansion along with its merchant fleets. During WW II between 1941 and 1945, the shipbuilding industry employed more people than any other industrial sector because the need for newer more technologically advanced ships was so great. At one point the number of people employed in shipbuilding exceeded four million! Shipbuilding is still a very viable industry today that continues to employ many shipyard workers.

Shipyard workers perform a variety of functions at America's shipyards ranging from ship design to construction to maintenance. Often shipyard workers performed many different types of tasks. Asbestos was a common material used on ships until the middle of the 70's because it possessed excellent heat and fire resistance properties. Unfortunately, around the mid 1970's asbestos was found to cause cancer and pulmonary disease in people that inhaled asbestos dust over an extended period of time. Asbestos use was greatly reduced since that discovery was made in the late 70's. The risks to shipyard workers and longshoremen continued, however, because the older ships that remained deployed still had asbestos on them.

Shipyard Workers Exposed to Asbestos on the Job

A preferred material for insulating pipes and for use in gaskets and sealing compounds to bond gaskets and valves, asbestos was inexpensive and had exceptional heat resistance and fire-proof properties. Sometimes the asbestos containing sealing compounds had to be mixed by hand by combining powder and water right on the spot. The powder contained the asbestos. Thus, in the mixing process, asbestos particles were released into the air.

As mentioned above, favored for its superior insulating properties asbestos was commonly used both during and after World War II to insulate incinerators, boilers, steam pipes and hot water pipes in most ships. Shipyard workers assigned to any ships during the construction phase were very likely to have inhaled dangerous asbestos fibers during that time. This is because in order to obtain a proper fit, the asbestos insulation would have to be trimmed and sanded to get a smooth finish. Both the cutting and the smoothing processes were prone to generating and releasing harmful asbestos dust into the air. Very few, if any, shipyard workers at the time wore protective gear because the dangers associated with asbestos exposure were not widely known.

Since the link between asbestos and mesothelioma and other pulmonary disease was identified in the late 70's, asbestos use has been significantly curtailed in insulation applications. Many older ships, however, are still likely to have the material in them and asbestos exposure in that case is still poses a major health risk to shipyard workers.

Mesothelioma, Asbestosis and Lung Cancer and are Frequently Diagnosed in Shipyard Workers

The three primary diseases that shipyard workers can develop as a result of exposure to asbestos either in the shipyard or on a naval vessel are described below. Family members are also often at risk for developing one of these diseases from second-hand exposure to asbestos dust and fibers that the workers would bring home on their clothing and hair.


Mesothelioma cancer is most frequently diagnosed as malignant pleural mesothelioma. This particular type of mesothelioma affects the lining of the lungs. Two less common forms of the cancer are peritoneal mesothelioma which affects the stomach lining and pericardial mesothelioma which affects the lining around the heart. The only known cause of mesothelioma is asbestos inhalation.

Asbestos-Related Lung Cancer

Often, malignant tumors can form in the lungs after extended exposure to asbestos. This is particularly true for workers who also smoke. The chance of developing lung cancer for a smoker who was exposed to asbestos are significantly enhanced versus that of non-smokers. When asbestos is just one of many underlying causes for lung cancer, it is called asbestos-related lung cancer.


Asbestosis is also only caused by asbestos inhalation, this is a pulmonary disease that results in scar tissue build up in the lungs causing painful and difficult breathing.

Author: Linda Molinari

Editor in Chief, Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance

Linda Molinari
Mesothelioma Treatment Guide

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