Asbestos in Shipyards: Ensuring Safety for Maritime Workers

Asbestos, prized for its resistance to corrosion and high temperatures, found widespread use in the shipbuilding industry. Shipyard equipment often incorporated asbestos insulation, and shipyard buildings were constructed with asbestos-corrugated sheeting. Asbestos products pervaded shapes, from adhesives and cement to insulation, gaskets, coating, and more.

On ships, asbestos served to prevent fires by insulating equipment such as boilers and pipes. However, the inadequate ventilation in confined spaces led to the accumulation of asbestos dust, resulting in exposure both in shipyards and aboard vessels.

During World War II, shipyard workers, particularly asbestos insulators, faced heightened exposure risks. The U.S. Navy, recognizing asbestos’s utility, mandated its use in ship construction as early as 1922, leading to widespread exposure among millions of shipyard workers – especially in times of war. The Navy’s use of asbestos-containing products encompassed over 300 items for ship construction, affecting millions of workers.

The shipyard worker population, which peaked at 1,700,000 in 1943, is at high risk of asbestos from the construction, maintenance, and repair of ships. Asbestos exposure pathways included loading and unloading asbestos-containing materials in shipyards as well as those involved in ship construction, maintenance, and decommissioning.

Shipyard workers unknowingly inhaled dangerous asbestos fibers, leading to inflammation and the potential development of asbestos-related diseases, such as mesothelioma or lung cancer. Cases of mesothelioma and lung cancer are elevated among shipyard workers due to their higher rates of asbestos exposure in the field.

In Michigan, the Defoe Shipyard posed asbestos exposure risks for military and civilian workers throughout the 20th century. Shipyards across the country also present potential asbestos exposure risks.

Products used by shipyard workers that may contain asbestos include but are not limited to:

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