Asbestos Exposure in Shipyards

A look at one of the most dangerous work sites for asbestos exposure


For decades, asbestos use was rampant in the nation’s shipbuilding industry.  Particularly in vessels used by the U.S. Navy, asbestos insulation products covered miles of surfaces throughout the ships.  Asbestos insulation lined hot water pipes, steam lines, engines, boilers, incinerators, valves, pumps and other equipment.  The hazardous dust from the products collected in these areas and in the tight confines of poorly ventilated areas on the ships. 

In the Second World War particularly, shipyard workers received extensive exposure to the asbestos used in ships and also in shipyard buildings.  Workers were exposed in the construction of new ships and in the repair and overhaul of older ships.  While a ship was in dry-dock, workers were required to rip off old asbestos and then re-apply new asbestos insulation on boilers, pipes, engines,  pumps, valves and other equipment.  The dusty process could take months to complete.

After the war, workers continued to be exposed to asbestos as older ships came in for repair or for deactivation.  Shipyard workers faced with the task of removing all the old asbestos from a huge navy vessel faced a very serious health risk.  Unfortunately, the risk was not confined to those actually removing the products, or reinstalling them.  Anyone who worked in the area and breathed in the dust was at risk. 

Longshoremen were also at risk for exposure to asbestos in the shipyards.  Longshoremen are the workers who actually load materials on and off ships.  They were often forced to carry and work around asbestos-containing insulation products and fireproofing materials.  Prior to the 1980s, they may even have been required to load bundles of raw asbestos fibers.  As was true for other workers at the time, they were unaware of the hazards of the materials they were transporting, and thus had no idea that any special safety precautions were necessary. 

Most Americans are probably unaware that the risks for American shipyard workers during WWII were sometimes as high as for the soldiers fighting the war.  The combat death rate was approximately eighteen per thousand service members.  For shipyard workers during WWII, fourteen of every thousand died of an asbestos-related cancer.  This statistic does not include deaths from asbestosis or related complications.  Nor does it encompass the shipyard workers’ family members who became exposed to the asbestos fibers that clung to the workers’ clothing when the workday was through.  In a 1984 review of Virginia shipyard workers, 79 percent showed signs of lung changes caused by asbestos exposure; 8 to 9 percent of the employees’ wives demonstrated similar abnormalities.  Often when women are diagnosed with mesothelioma, it is discovered that they received exposure to asbestos while washing a family member’s clothing.

In the Pacific Northwest, Naval shipyards at which vessels were built and/or overhauled include Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, Washington.  Private shipyards in the Northwest that constructed Navy ships, Victory ships and Liberty ships include:

  • Lake Washington Shipyards, Houghton, Washington
  • Associated Shipbuilders, Inc., Seattle, Washington
  • Todd Pacific Shipyards, Inc., Seattle, Washington
  • Todd Pacific Shipyards, Inc., Tacoma, Washington
  • Kaiser Company, Vancouver, Washington
  • Oregon Shipbuilding Company, Portland, Oregon
  • Willamette Iron & Steel Corporation, Portland, Oregon

It is indisputable that workers’ exposure to asbestos in American shipyards led to devastating consequences for their health.  One study that tracked a group of workers who had spent more than twenty years in the shipbuilding trade found that 86% developed asbestos–related lung cancer or lung disease.  Selikoff,I.J., Lilis R., Nicholson W.J.,  Asbestos Disease in United States Shipyards,  Ann. N. Y. Acad. Sci. 1979; 330:295–311.  As long as workers continue to be exposed to the asbestos insulation that once covered countless surfaces in the nation’s vessels and shipyard buildings, the increased risk for mesothelioma and lung cancer continues. 

The risk is so well recognized today that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has adopted a rule to govern asbestos exposure in American shipyards.  (OSHA Regulation 29 CFR 1915.1001).  Current provisions regulate construction, demolition, and repair of asbestos–containing vessels and shipyard buildings, as well as emergency procedures following an asbestos spill, and proper methods for asbestos clean-up and disposal.  For more information about this important OSHA regulation, click here.

If you worked in a shipyard, even decades ago, and you are now experiencing the symptoms common to mesothelioma, you should visit with your doctor as quickly as you can.  If you have not experienced symptoms, but feel that you were exposed to asbestos while employed in a shipyard, you still might consider regular check-ups to monitor your health regularly.  One of the greatest problems with mesothelioma is that it is often not detected until the late stages of the disease.  This is because the symptoms of the cancer do not manifest themselves for years after the initial exposure to asbestos.

If you suspect you or a loved one may have mesothelioma or another asbestos-related disease, you should also contact a reputable law firm to help you get the justice you deserve. Bergman Draper & Frockt is the Northwest’s premier mesothelioma law firm, handling only asbestos-related cases. Call them today for a free consultation; you’ll be glad you did.