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Shipyard workers built and maintained ships for military and civilian use. The shipbuilding industry peaked in the 1940s, during World War II. Asbestos was used widely in this industry, exposing workers to the mineral. As a result, workers may have developed asbestos diseases, such as mesothelioma.


01. Asbestos Risk for Shipyard Workers

How Are Shipyard Workers Exposed to Asbestos?

Millions of shipyard workers worldwide have been exposed to asbestos. In the United States alone, researchers estimate 3.5 million workers were exposed to asbestos in shipyards. Asbestos exposure can lead to serious diseases, including mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis.

Facts About Shipyard Workers
  • 137,110 shipyard workers in the United States (2020)
  • Asbestos Exposure: Previous and ongoing exposure risk
  • Asbestos-Related Disease Risk: High
  • Similar Occupations: Marines, Navy veterans

Shipyard workers most often built ships for the U.S. Navy and commercial buyers. Naval shipbuilding contracts peaked around World War II (WWII).

These ships were built to withstand extreme heat from engines and battles. As a result, asbestos was used in products to provide heat resistance, strength and chemical durability. Asbestos could be found in:

  • Equipment used in shipyards
  • On-board safety equipment
  • Pipes and other inner workings of ships
  • The body of ships

Asbestos materials were used in nearly every area of old ships and naval vessels. As a result, the risk of exposure was high. Confined workspaces on ships also made any airborne fibers more concentrated. Workers not exposed on ships may have experienced asbestos exposure in other shipyard areas.

What Asbestos Products Put Shipyard Workers at Risk?

Asbestos products were used widely in shipyards. The risk of exposure in shipyards often stems from ship components, such as gaskets and pipe coverings.

Shipyard workers were often exposed to asbestos dust when these products were disturbed during ship construction or demolition.

  • During construction, asbestos-containing products are sanded and customized to fit snugly in the vessel, which can cause airborne asbestos fibers.
  • During demolition, old products may crack and fall apart, releasing asbestos dust into the air.

Even trace amounts of inhaled asbestos may cause mesothelioma, asbestosis or lung cancer. Workers below deck or in other tight quarters often faced an even higher risk of exposure, as any released asbestos would become concentrated in the air.

In the early 20th century, asbestos was considered an essential component in navy ships. In 1922, the U.S. Navy specified asbestos must be used in new submarines. Chrysotile asbestos was required in gaskets, insulation, packing and tape. By 1939, the U.S. classified asbestos as a critical material. As a result, manufacturers wishing to win military contracts were required to use asbestos in their vessels.

Shipyard workers may have been exposed to asbestos from:

These products were manufactured by many asbestos companies. Often, the products were then sold to shipbuilding companies or shipyard corporations.

These asbestos companies may have exposed hundreds of thousands of shipyard workers to the mineral. As a result of exposure, shipyard workers are at risk of developing asbestos illnesses, such as mesothelioma.

In the 1980s, U.S. government agencies began to regulate the use of asbestos. However, exposure risk continues into the 21st century as ships with asbestos materials corrode and decay.

Common Places Asbestos Is Found in the Shipbuilding Industry

Asbestos products were used throughout the shipbuilding industry. As a result, exposure could happen in many different locations. Exposure to these products can lead to asbestos cancers and other diseases.

Shipyard workers risked exposure while working on various types of ships and military vessels, including:

Other locations in the workplace that often exposed shipyard workers include:

  • Boiler rooms
  • Engine rooms
  • Equipment shops
  • Shipping and receiving bays

Working in any of these areas could have led to asbestos exposure. There is no safe level of exposure. However, enclosed areas with poor ventilation can present a greater risk. Without proper airflow, fibers may become concentrated in the air. This can increase the risk of inhalation and/or ingestion, leading to asbestos illnesses.

Shipyard Workers and At-Risk Trades

Shipyards were busy places, with many tradespeople working on the jobsite every day. As a result, occupational exposure at shipyards was widespread. Professionals of many trades may have been exposed to asbestos.

At-risk trades in shipyards include:

Individuals who did not directly come in contact with asbestos in shipyards may also be at risk of secondary exposure. This happens when asbestos fibers settle on surfaces, such as clothing, and are then inhaled or ingested by others. Secondary asbestos exposure often affects the family members and loved ones of workers.

02. Mesothelioma Risk for Shipyard Workers

Mesothelioma Risk for Shipyard Workers

Asbestos use was frequent in shipyards. As a result, shipyard workers are considered one of the most at-risk occupations for asbestos diseases.

In one study, researchers found 86% of ship repair workers later developed asbestosis. This included individuals who did not work directly with asbestos materials.

Another report examined asbestos-related deaths among workers at a shipyard in Italy. Researchers found elevated cancer deaths among these workers compared to the general population. Observed cancers included:

Nearly a quarter of these deaths were attributed to asbestos exposure.

Another report found the mortality rate for asbestosis among shipyard workers is 16 times higher than for other occupations.

In addition to the diseases’ long latency, asbestos exposure from ships can happen at any time. Individuals may be exposed while working directly with the mineral, or through secondary exposure. Authors of a 2007 study illustrated how asbestos may pose a continuing health threat.

“One can speculate that a single batch of asbestos mined in the 1930s could have resulted in plaques and asbestosis in Canadian miners in the 1960s, lung cancer and mesothelioma in U.S. shipyard workers in the 1970s, and in the future, result in lung disease in Indian and Pakistani ship‐breakers in the 2010s, and mesothelioma in the 2030s in Indians and Pakistanis exposed currently as children to improperly discarded asbestos waste.”

The consequences of asbestos use in shipyards are far-reaching. Some former shipyard workers develop related diseases as much as 50 years after exposure.

03. Compensation for Shipyard Workers

Compensation for Victims of Occupational Asbestos Exposure

Shipyard workers who develop an asbestos disease from occupational exposure may be eligible to receive compensation. Workers and loved ones may wish to seek mesothelioma compensation to pay for medical expenses, cover lost wages or hold asbestos companies accountable.

There are several avenues a person may pursue for compensation. They may file an asbestos trust claim, a workers’ compensation claim or a lawsuit to gain compensation.

Mesothelioma lawsuits may result in a settlement or verdict. Verdicts are decided by a jury, whereas settlements are decided out of court between the plaintiff and defendant.

Examples of Shipyard Worker Lawsuits

Shipyard Worker & Boilermaker Receives $3.4M

In San Francisco, California, a 76-year-old boilermaker and shipyard worker received compensation after filing an asbestos claim. The claimant worked at National Steel & Shipbuilding from 1959 to 1998. The claimant also worked at Todd Shipyard from 1961 to 1962.

Both shipyards were known to use various asbestos products. Boilers also often contained various asbestos components.

The claimant received approximately $3.4 million in compensation.

Exxon Pays $25M to Former Shipyard Worker

Bert Minton was a shipfitter and repair supervisor at Newport News Shipbuilding in the 1960s and 1970s. Minton worked mainly on Exxon commercial oil tankers. Due to workplace asbestos exposure, Minton developed asbestos cancer.

Minton brought a lawsuit against Exxon. The case argued Exxon was aware of the dangers of asbestos exposure during Minton’s work but did not warn employees.

A Virginia jury awarded Minton $25 million on behalf of the corporation.

Individuals wishing to pursue compensation should contact a mesothelioma law firm. A mesothelioma lawyer can assist with deciding which option is best for the unique situation.

04. Asbestos Safety

Asbestos Safety for Shipyard Workers

After widespread asbestos use in the 20th century, several U.S. agencies enacted legislation to regulate the mineral in the early 1980s. Many of these laws apply to all industries. However, some regulations are specific to the shipbuilding industry.

OSHA Shipyard Industry Standards for Asbestos Safety

  • Permissible Exposure Limits (PELs): Employers must ensure no employees are exposed to more than 0.1 asbestos fiber per cubic centimeter of air over eight hours.
  • Multi-Employer Worksites: On multi-employer worksites, any employer performing work on asbestos materials must inform all other employers on-site. Any asbestos hazards at a worksite should also be abated by the contractor who created or controls the source of asbestos contamination.
  • Regulated Areas: Asbestos work can only take place in designated and marked areas. Access to these areas is limited to authorized professionals. Anyone entering the area must wear a HEPA respirator.
  • Exposure Assessments and Monitoring: Air quality on asbestos worksites should be continuously monitored. Monitoring assesses any asbestos fibers concentrated in the air.
  • Protective Clothing: Employers must provide and require personal protective equipment (PPE) at any asbestos work site. They are also required to handle the safe laundering of this equipment.

These regulations aim to reduce asbestos exposure. A full breakdown of shipyard regulations can be found on the OSHA website.

These regulations help mitigate asbestos exposure risk. However, today’s shipyard workers should still be aware of the dangers of asbestos exposure. Though the mineral is now used sparingly, older vessels may still pose a risk. Demolition and natural corrosion can release asbestos fibers. As a result, shipyards may still pose health risks.

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