For the last 75 years, shipyard workers have been among those in the U.S. workforce with an elevated risk of asbestos exposure. Particularly before 1980, it is likely that workers in the ship building industry were in contact with dangerous levels of asbestos, increasing their chances of developing diseases like lung cancer and mesothelioma.
A 2008 study, published by the Ulster Medical Society, indicated shipyard workers have an asbestosis mortality rate 16-times greater than other studied occupations. Authorities have estimated that thousands of shipyard workers—many in Ohio—have died as a result of excess asbestos exposure.
Former Shipyard Workers have been diagnosed with mesothelioma cancer, and other asbestos-related illnesses.
Joe Lyon is a highly-rated Cincinnati, Ohio asbestos lawyer representing plaintiffs nationwide in a wide variety of toxic tort and mesothelioma claims.
Shipyards Filled with Asbestos
Before the toxicity of asbestos became well known, ships were often teeming with the dangerous products. Because asbestos is effective at resisting corrosion and high temperatures, it was seen as an ideal material for the industry. It was used to insulate boilers, incinerators, and various internal pipes.
Over time, asbestos dust built up in the many holds of ships which led to widespread human exposure. When asbestos fibers are disturbed, they become more dangerous. Workers unknowingly inhaled the fibers, and became embedded in the tissue surrounding the lungs.
Up until the 1970s, the U.S. Navy authorized the use of over 300 asbestos-containing products for ship building. As the use of these hazardous products increased, health professionals monitoring workers were able to recognize the potential toxicity of the materials.
This is a concern for all shipyard workers, whether they built and maintained ships designed for military or civilian use. For many years, asbestos has been in the process of being removed from ships, but the material remains on many vessels, and the problem persists.
Who is at a Heightened Risk?
In theory, almost anybody in the shipbuilding industry in the 20th century could be at risk. The vast tons of material insulated with asbestos in enclosed spaces on ships served as a particularly insidious hazard to workers and servicemen.
Asbestos was used almost everywhere, including heavily in boiler rooms, engine rooms and sleeping quarters. It was used as insulation, pipe covering, and used in the paint that covered ships. It is estimated that in some years about 1 in 500 shipyard workers were handling and installing asbestos insulation on a daily basis.
Exposure to asbestos at shipyards is not limited to spending great amounts of time on ships. Even those workers loading and unloading materials at ports and dry docks could have been heavily exposed. The boxes, crates, pallets and packing materials used to carry the products sometimes contained asbestos fibers.
Military Veterans Exposed to Toxins
At the height of World War II, the estimated number of naval shipyard workers could have been as high as 1.7 million. Because asbestos was a critical element in the shipbuilding industry at the time, military veterans, particularly Navy Veterans, have been especially hard-hit by exposure-related diseases.
Many veterans are eligible for disability compensation, handled by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). However, veterans must prove that their condition is asbestos-related exposure and was caused during active military service. This can be difficult. Fortunately, veterans can follow another course of action.
In addition to applying for government benefits, military veterans and former shipyard workers in Ohio can file lawsuits against negligent companies, including the manufacturers of asbestos-containing products. An estimated 30 percent of all mesothelioma lawsuits are filed by military veterans.
The Dangers of Asbestos in Shipyards
The potential dangers of asbestos inhalation have been known for several decades now, though the full extent of the damage to the lives and families of former workers has yet to be seen. Many former Ohio workers are treated for mesothelioma, asbestosis, lung cancer, and other respiratory diseases as a result of poor working conditions in the past.
Because of the delayed symptoms, and long latency period of diseases caused by asbestos products, many former shipyard workers in Ohio are still being diagnosed with illnesses caused by exposure many years ago. It can take up to 50 years after exposure for symptoms of mesothelioma or asbestosis to present themselves.
In a 2007 study published by Occupational & Environmental Medicine, which studied the death of 4,700 men and women who built and maintained ships, researchers observed “excess deaths” from mesothelioma and respiratory cancer, which they attributed to asbestos fibers at shipyards.
Shipyard Asbestos Exposure
Depending on the shipyard, workers performed tasks on any number and variety of vessels. Researchers suggest the worst exposure occurred in engine rooms, mess halls and on painted decks. Further exposure occurred in shipways and dry docks. The following jobs also put shipyard workers in direct contact with asbestos:
Shipyard Welding & Painting
When coupled with asbestos exposure, welding and painting may be the most hazardous jobs of all. During welding operations, hazardous vapors are produced from the heating of base metals.
Other fumes are released from metal coatings, finishes, and welding rods. Dangerous exposures increase greatly if welding is performed in a confined space. Some of the metals welded in shipbuilding operations that may be airborne and cause acute and chronic lung diseases include:
- Iron Oxides
- Zinc Oxides—from zinc-enriched paints and galvanized steel.
- Chromium—released when welding stainless steels, or around certain paints.
- Welding Injuries—in welding rods.
Like welding, painting inside a ship’s hull is often performed in confined spaces and tanks, thereby concentrating toxic fumes. The following materials may have been used by shipyard painters:
Shipyard Workers Lawsuits
There have been numerous very large settlements involving victims of asbestos exposure whilst working at shipyards. Below are a few examples:
- In 2011, a former shipfitter was awarded $25 million in a lawsuit against Exxon Corporation after he developed mesothelioma while working at Newport News Shipbuilding. The suit claimed the worker was exposed to high levels of asbestos, and claimed that Exxon knew of the health risks, but failed to adequately warn shipyard workers. Exxon Corporation owned the oil tankers that he worked on in the 1960s and 70s.
- In 2006, the family of a career naval machinist was awarded $5.2 million after the man died of mesothelioma. A jury determined that Foster Wheeler Corp., an engineering and construction firm, did not disclose the clear risks of removing the asbestos insulation from the ships’ boilers.
- In 2014, a California jury ordered John Crane Inc. to pay $70 million to an ill man and his wife for asbestos-containing products the man used as a U.S. Navy machinist, causing pleural mesothelioma.
American Shipbuilding Asbestos
The American Shipbuilding Company in Lorain, Ohio was a major source of asbestos exposure for thousands of former shipyard workers. In recent years, many American Shipbuilding employees have developed serious and potentially fatal diseases due to past exposure. While operating, the American Shipbuilding Company built and repaired many different vessels, including:
- Cargo ships
Asbestos was used at the American Shipbuilding yards in various areas of the ships and machinery, including:
- Electrical and plumbing insulation
- Steam pipe
- Welding blankets
- Building insulation
People who worked at American Shipbuilding are still at a great risk for developing serious health complications from asbestos exposure. If former workers develop symptoms of respiratory and lung disease, they should contact medical professionals as soon as possible.
Asbestos-Related Illnesses & Symptoms
The hazardous dust of asbestos fibers can cause a number of serious diseases. Some of these diseases directly caused by asbestos exposure can include:
- Mesothelioma (a cancer of the tissue surrounding the lungs and other organs)
- Lung cancer
- Asbestosis (scarring of lungs)
- Possible cancers in other organs
The signs and symptoms of these conditions may include the following:
- Pain in the side of the chest or lower back
- Shortness of breath
- Excessive sweating
- Weight loss
- Trouble swallowing