Located in Virginia, the Phillyship building company employed thousands of workers during the last century. Today many workers are still employed at their marine building facility in Portsmouth. Along with many other facilities, the Phillyship played an important role during both world wars and the commercial shipping industries that dominated after. Once the Navy contracts began to decrease, the facility began specializing in both building and maintaining large vessels.
Workers who were tasked with jobs like fireproofing, rust prevention, insulating and coating the decks were exposed to a dangerous material. Asbestos was commonly used a cheap means of protecting employees and vessels. It is known for being highly resistant to heat and caustic chemicals that can corrode. Its main use was in boiler rooms to protect from heat, along with walls and ceilings to make them fire resistant. Unfortunately, many workers unknowingly used the material without any form of protection to prevent inhalation.
By the later part of the century, the material would be banned from use. Law would also require that asbestos be removed from ships only with workers wearing protective clothing and masks. The workers, who had previously been exposed, however, were still at risk of developing conditions like mesothelioma and asbestosis. Mesothelioma, though rare, is directly caused by inhaling asbestos fibers. Once they enter the body, the stay there for the remainder of a human’s life. These fibers actually damage cells and the protective membranes that surround the lungs, heart and stomach. If left untreated, the disease can spread to other parts of the body as well.
Though it was an important part of shipbuilding, people who were exposed to asbestos on a regular basis are at risk of developing such complications. Fortunately, most people will not develop diseases like asbestosis or mesothelioma. The people who have developed mesothelioma are often misdiagnosed. This can be caused by a variety of reasons, most likely is that they simply can’t relate their past experiences with the material to their current illness.
These diseases can be devastating and if not treated soon enough, deadly. Shipyard workers have a unique risk in that the material was used commonly for such an extended period of time. Asbestos was useful and most people were simply unaware of the risks it posed to their health. Now, many people who worked in shipyards are in danger of developing one of the many asbestos related diseases.