Originally a cargo vessel construction site, the Richmond Shipyards in Richmond, California were owned by Henry J. Kaiser and expanded to a full service naval shipbuilding compound in 1940, after the British government asked for assistance in building additional warships to combat the German navy.
Over the next year, the Richmond Shipyard was divided into four separate areas that specialized in the construction of different vessels. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, the Richmond Shipyards became the focal point of vessel construction for the U.S. Pacific fleet of war vessels. Over 500 ships were constructed at the shipyards during World War II, a full 30 percent of all naval construction by the United States Maritime Commission in this time period. Kaiser was able to accomplish this by developing an advanced assembly line production process that was similar to what was happening in the auto industry. This process was able to exceed order completion schedules on a regular basis, allowing the company to beat out other competing shipyards for the most lucrative contracts.
By the end of World War II, the four Richmond Shipyards had employed nearly 100,000 personnel and their efforts in building an enormous part of the Pacific Naval Fleet were widely admired. The yard was even able to build some vessels in less than a week’s time. The shipyard’s operations were constantly shown in newsreels around the country.
Today, the four Richmond Shipyards are actually part of a National Historic Park, and are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The men and women who were employed during World War II are recognized for their determination and effort in producing ships on such a massive scale. Equally well-known is the dangers these workers were exposed to, not only from inhaling dangerous fumes and the obvious hazards of working in a high-speed production facility, but also from their exposure to asbestos.
Very little attention to this problem was being addressed in the 1940’s, but the deteriorating health of many of the workers at Richmond Shipyards was noted. Asbestos was a major ingredient in many of the parts used in construction and the shaping of these products on-site increased the amount of asbestos in the nearby air.
Asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma are diseases caused by asbestos, but the seriousness of these diseases and how asbestos exposure causes them weren’t issues of concern until a great number of shipyard workers were critically ill. Today, asbestos is not used in this type of construction, and workers are protected from its dangers.