Northwest Marine Ironworks, a shipyard in Oregon, repairs and rebuilds vessels primarily for small to medium-sized commercial ships. During the Second World War, Northwest commissioned many naval utilities and auxiliaries, later becoming known as one of the main marine iron producers in the state.
The shipyard employs a variety of workers including plant workers, supervisors, dock workers, union officers and technical men. Those who worked at the plant before modern safety standards were implemented often saw exposure to hazardous materials, such as asbestos. Asbestos was commonly used in the insulation of pipes and electrical wires and gaskets before the 1970s. It was also frequently used in the manufacturing of tiles and iron coatings that were used at Northwest Marine Ironworks.
The inhalation of asbestos fibers can lead to a handful of health problems, including mesothelioma. Due to the frequency of asbestos-related illnesses found in former shipyard employees, judgments against facilities such as Northwest Marine Ironworks have become commonplace. Furthermore, mesothelioma, a disease commonly seen in employees of shipyards, is often fatal when caught at a late stage. Those who have neglected to inform their doctor of previous contact with asbestos are often left without treatment options once the condition has fully developed.
Most shipyard employees that have contracted asbestos-related illnesses have been electricians and plumbers, as these professionals worked most directly with the pipes and wires insulated by asbestos materials. However, some employees who did not directly handle asbestos have also been diagnosed with the condition. It is the inhalation, not the handling, of asbestos fibers that leads to mesothelioma and other asbestos-related conditions. Occasionally, family members who did not even work at the shipyard have been diagnosed with mesothelioma, as the asbestos fibers can attach themselves to clothes, skin and hair.
Some studies from as far back as the 1880s reveal that asbestos was a very dangerous material, but the ship building and repair industry was slow to change its safety regulations. This led to thousands of people being needlessly exposed to the harmful effects of asbestos products. Although asbestos was ultimately banned by the United States government in 1991, the negative consequences resulting from asbestos inhalation continue to this day. The most common symptoms of mesothelioma are shortness of breath and chest pain due to respiratory ailment.