Asbestos Use in Shipyards

During the 1940’s, when the United States entered World War II, the demand for ships increased tremendously as the American fleet expanded. In 1939, the American fleet had 394 ships and grew to 6,768 ships by 1945. During that time, over 4 million workers that built and repaired the ships were exposed to asbestos. The workers had little knowledge of the health risk associated with this material. Asbestos is a mineral that can be found on every continent and has been used for various things throughout history. Since it could take years for the symptoms of asbestos-related diseases – such as mesothelioma – to arise because of exposure, the risk wasn’t fully known until people began to die.

Use of Asbestos

Asbestos was a very common and valued material used in the process of building ships. Companies could purchase asbestos in large quantities for less money than the other similar materials would cost. This material was good to use to line the boilers, turbines, engines, and other components because it could withstand high temperatures and corrosion. Due to the increased usage of the material, many men were being exposed to the material as they were being carried overseas by ship.

Knowledge of Health Dangers

It was during that time of military mobilization for World War II when the Navy first began to learn of the dangers associated with this material from health reports in Europe. The reports stated that workers exposed to asbestos by inhalation of the material were getting sick and then dying of asbestosis and mesothelioma. The U.S. later took action and started the process of passing regulations that would protect workers of the shipyards or other occupations from the asbestos clouds that surrounded the work environment.

Regulation’s Minor Impact

Even though these regulations were passed, workers were still regularly exposed to asbestos clouds. There was a high demand for ships because of wartime, and the regulations that were put in place were rarely enforced because of the added pressures of war. It would take at least 30 years before the dangers of asbestos were fully released to the workers within the shipyards and other places where asbestos was used. The government then decided to take the necessary steps to aid the workers that were exposed to asbestos.