Asbestos has been an essential part of maritime industry for approximately eight decades. Due to its excellent resistance to fire and heat, insulation made from asbestos has commonly been used for boilers, fire boxes, and fire doors. In September of 1934, the S.S. Morro Castle was burned off the New Jersey coast, which led to the maritime industry demanding stricter regulations regarding fire safety. This consisted of fire training among members of the crew as well as frequent drills on life boat use.

Longshoremen and Asbestos

Another issue was asbestos. The hazardous effects of the mineral and consequent health conditions, such as mesothelioma and asbestosis, had been noted within Europe but did not reach the U.S. until the 1930s. In addition, the maritime industry’s reaction to the burning of the S.S. Morro Castle created an opportunity for the asbestos industry. Businesses such as Johns-Manville, Raysbestos, and W.R. Grace gave evidence regarding the fireproofing ability of asbestos to Congress. However, they did not provide accurate information regarding the hazardous effects of the mineral. The Second World War also encouraged the use of asbestos within sea-going vessels.

Because the chance of fire was increased due to combat, asbestos was commonly used in many parts of the ship throughout the war. Even after the war, no reason was known why asbestos production should be halted. This allowed many vessels that were produced between the years 1940 and 1980 to contain large amounts of asbestos. Below the decks, ships were badly ventilated and had very little air flow. This made the situation particularly dangerous for those who worked in the cargo hold, unloading and loading boxes and freight.

However, longshoremen were not only exposed to asbestos when they were on the ships. They also were commonly exposed to the danger when they were handling cargo as well. This was largely due to the fact that asbestos was produced both in the United States as well as in other countries and then imported. Because no regulations were in place, longshoremen were largely unaware of the dangers of asbestos and did not take many, if any, precautions. A 1980 study showed that among workers employed on ships for 20 years or longer, 86% developed a form of respiratory disease.

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