The engine room or boiler room of a ship is the space that houses the machinery that propels the vessel. It usually houses a heat engine, powered by diesel fuel, gas, or steam. This room is usually placed at the rear of the ship to increase the cargo capacity while minimizing equipment costs and mechanical problems.
People who worked in boiler rooms and engine rooms of ships were at a high risk for asbestos exposure. In 1934, a law was passed that all ships must be protected with a fire-resistant substance. In most cases, asbestos was used. Engine rooms and boiler rooms of commercial and military ships were covered with an asbestos-containing material. Boilers and pipes were also insulated with a similar asbestos-containing material. Tanks were sprayed with a fire-retardant paint that contained asbestos as well. The furnaces of ships were wrapped with an asbestos jacket and sealed with asbestos cement. This greatly lowered the risk of fires at sea, but introduced the opportunity for asbestos related diseases.
Asbestos and Boiler and Engine Rooms
Workers performing maintenance on the equipment inadvertently disturbed the asbestos and caused it to be released into the air. Anybody in the immediate area was put an increased risk of inhaling asbestos fibers. Activities that may have disturbed the asbestos include applying spray-on insulation to boiler walls, removing tape on boiler pipes, applying an asbestos joint compound, removing or handling asbestos jackets, handling poorly maintained or substandard asbestos mattresses or mats, handling pre-formed asbestos lagging around pipes, mixing and/or applying asbestos cement, or being in the same vicinity of any of the above actions.
Due to the confinement and close quartering aboard a ship, crew that may not have been in any of the boiler or engine rooms were still at risk for exposure. Asbestos fibers that were stirred up and released into the air could circulate throughout the ship and cling to the boiler room workers’ clothing. Technicians or general laborers who worked in boiler or engine rooms were put at a higher risk of inhaling asbestos fibers. These same workers are at an increased risk of developing mesothelioma. Mesothelioma is a cancer directly caused by asbestos exposure. Since the 1960s, the number of mesothelioma cases has risen dramatically. The number of cases is expected to peak around 2020 before declining.