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Shipyard work is among the riskiest of all maritime occupations, as these workers have the second highest rate of occupational injury compared to others in the field. Workers are at risk of both physical and chemical hazards, including toxic asbestos exposure.

Researchers estimate that at least 2.5 million workers have been exposed to asbestos in shipyards. Asbestos materials were utilized in essentially every area of old ships and naval vessels, from the boilers to insulation, and the confined workspaces could make any airborne fibers more concentrated. Even shipyard workers not working directly on the ships could be at risk of exposure because of the toxin’s heavy use in the industry.

How Are Shipyard Workers at Risk of Asbestos Exposure

Shipyard workers are considered one of the most at risk occupations because of the high prevalence of asbestos at shipyards and on the ships. Workers who did not directly come into contact with the toxin through their responsibilities also faced a risk of secondary or environmental exposure. In a study completed just a few years after asbestos use was regulated in the United States, researchers found that 86% of ship repair workers, who did not work directly with asbestos, later developed asbestosis. Those who develop the lung condition are at a higher risk for other more fatal asbestos diseases, like mesothelioma cancer.

Risk of exposure in shipyards stems from asbestos insulation, gaskets, valves and pipe coverings for steam pipes and hot water pipes, among other asbestos products. Shipyard workers are often exposed to asbestos dust when these products are disturbed during the assembly or dismantling of ships. During construction, the asbestos-containing products are sanded and customized to fit snugly in the vessel, which can cause asbestos fibers to become airborne. 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 heavily concentrated in the air.

Many shipyard trades pose a high risk of occupational asbestos exposure.

At-Risk Trades
  • Carpenters
  • Caulkers
  • Crane operators
  • Draftsmen
  • Electricians
  • Engine fitters
  • Fitter
  • Foremen
  • Heavy equipment operators
  • Insulators
  • Laborer
  • Lagger
  • Machinists
  • Painters
  • Pipe coverers
  • Pipefitters
  • Sheet metal workers
  • Shipwright
  • Sprayer
  • Welder

Many of these roles were also performed by servicemen and women in the U.S. Navy. Today, veterans from all branches of the military make up about one-third of all mesothelioma diagnoses. Asbestos exposure occurred in both private and naval shipyards, like the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Washington, the Long Beach Naval Shipyard in Los Angeles and the Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth, Virginia.

Shipyard workers are still at risk of asbestos exposure when working on older ships today, especially when retiring World War II-era vessels. According to the most recent data from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), workers from the stone products industry and shipbuilding industry faced asbestosis mortality rates more than 15 times greater than every other industry combined.

Preventing Asbestos Exposure

Due to the severity of asbestos diseases, there are strict regulations in place to protect the Americans working in shipyards across the country. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards, employers should ensure:

  • Employees do not exceed the time-weighted average limit for asbestos exposure, 0.1 fiber per cubic centimeter of air in an eight hour period.
  • All asbestos-containing worksites are clearly marked, and anyone working in or adjacent to that site is given proper personal protection equipment, including respirators.
  • There are laundering services onsite for all contaminated work clothing to prevent secondary exposure of workers families.
  • Decontamination areas are supplied for employees’ use before leaving the worksite.

Shipyard workers that experienced occupational asbestos exposure should seek medical advice about related health risks. Catching the signs and symptoms associated with mesothelioma early has a direct correlation with improved prognosis.

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