Shipbuilders build and maintain ships for civilian and military use. They make vessels ranging from aircraft carriers for the Navy to luxury liners for various cruise lines. These blue-collar workers perform such jobs as painting electrical work, welding, plumbing, insulating, repairing, and general contracting. No matter their specialty in shipbuilding, these workers were often exposed to asbestos.
Shipyard Worker Fast Facts (BLS.gov)
- National employment: 136,000
- Previously Exposed: Yes
- Still Being Exposed: Yes
- Asbestos Related Disease Risk: Moderate
- States with Highest Employment: California, Washington, New York, Massachusetts
Asbestos once was considered a vital element in the shipbuilding field, especially in the military. This was because of its ability to resist heat and fire that is so dangerous for ships at sea. Asbestos also is an excellent insulator and highly resistant to corrosion.
Before it was so well-known that asbestos is toxic, vessels often were covered in asbestos from top to bottom, front to back. It is ironic that asbestos-containing products were used on ships for safety, but it was the asbestos presence that put shipbuilders in so much danger.
Shipyards on the East and West Coasts have histories of asbestos use. There is a sad legacy of many former shipbuilders getting mesothelioma from asbestos exposure. Court records, especially in California and New York, have many examples of ex-shipbuilders who got mesothelioma from their work.
Shipbuilder Asbestos Exposure
Exposure to asbestos in a shipyard would start with loading and unloading of parts and materials that contained the asbestos. The shipping containers that were used to transport the products almost always contained asbestos fibers from the ship or from the crate contents. Just bringing the parts for the ship and getting them to the installation area could expose shipbuilders to asbestos.
People who worked in ship construction, or did regular maintenance work, repairs, decommissioning or overhauls were at higher risk of asbestos exposure. Depending on which shipyard it was, shipbuilders often did their work on battleships, aircraft carriers, submarines, destroyers, and cruisers.
Shipbuilders who worked between WW II and the Vietnam War were often exposed to asbestos. Many shipyards in the US have been shown to have a long history of asbestos exposure. These include:
- Brooklyn Navy Yard
- Moore Dry Dock
- California Naval Shipard
- Caddell Dry Dock
- Consolidated Steel Shipyard
- GMD Shipyard
- Long Beach Naval Shipyard
- San Francisco Drydock
- Southwest Marine
Scientific Studies on Shipbuilder Asbestos Exposure
A study called Asbestos and Ship-Building: Fatal Consequences (NIH.gov) showed that shipbuilders had a mortality rate from asbestosis that was 16 times the average of all other occupations. Many of these deaths occurred on the East and West Coasts of the US where so much shipbuilding was done.
The number of shipyard workers dropped after WWII from 1.7 million to 200,000 by 1980. That was the time when asbestos stopped being used in most industries.
Studies also indicate that military veterans have been hurt by asbestos exposure; approximately 30% of mesothelioma lawsuits are filed by military veterans. Most of those lawsuits come from former Navy members.
Shipbuilder Asbestos and Mesothelioma Lawsuits
The shipbuilding industry has been involved in many lawsuits over asbestos exposure. Many of the mesothelioma lawsuits involve Navy veterans, but the Federal Tort Claims Act allows the federal government to evade liability. It is private contractors that are exposed to lawsuits.
One example is that of an employee at Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia who was awarded $25 million from Exxon in 2011. The company owned the oil tankers he was employed on in the 1970s. The judge ruled that Exxon knew about the dangers but did not issue warnings about asbestos dangers.
Another worker was employed for 40 years at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and was awarded $5 million by a judge who decided that Foster Wheeler Corporation did not disclose the risks involved in taking out asbestos insulation from ship boilers.
Shipbuilding Companies and Manufacturers
Some of the companies and manufacturers that were involved in the shipbuilding and asbestos product industry that sickened workers were GAF Corporation and Manville Corporation.