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Written By: Devin Golden

Asbestos Exposure Among Shipbuilders and Shipyard Workers

Shipbuilders and shipyard workers faced regular asbestos exposure during the 20th century. As the U.S. Navy expanded its fleet, asbestos was a desirable mineral to protect certain rooms from fires.

Retired LCDR Carl Jewett

Reviewed By

Retired LCDR Carl Jewett

VA-Accredited Claims Agent

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Important Facts About Asbestos Exposure Among Shipbuilders and Shipyard Workers

  • According to some studies, shipyard workers and shipbuilders are the most likely occupation to lead to mesothelioma cancer.
  • Shipyard workers and shipbuilders regularly dealt with asbestos when building U.S. Navy ships during the 20th century. Asbestos exposure risks for shipyard workers and Naval personnel led to many mesothelioma cases.
  • There was a wide range of shipyard jobs at risk of asbestos exposure. Carpenters, mechanics, machinists, electricians, insulators and woodcutters are just a few examples.

History of Asbestos in Ships

World War II marked a significant era for the use of asbestos in the United States. The increased production of ships, aircraft and other military necessities meant increased use of asbestos, which is a durable, fire-resistant mineral that causes cancer.

The military’s reliance on asbestos led to exposure instances in ships, aircraft, barracks and many other war-related settings. The fallout was an alarming number of mesothelioma cases among shipbuilders and other shipyard workers. Military asbestos exposure was a very common occurrence. Veterans of our armed forces are one of the largest occupation-based demographics affected by mesothelioma.

Mesothelioma Among Shipbuilders and Shipyard Workers

Asbestos can cause the rare cancer mesothelioma, which is diagnosed in approximately 2,500 people in the U.S. each year. Mesothelioma usually forms in the linings of the lungs and abdominal cavity. Veterans of the U.S. military make up around 33% of diagnosed cases. Shipbuilders are near the top of the list among other occupations, mostly due to the link between the U.S. military’s reliance on asbestos.

Research conducted by the pathology departments of Georgetown University and Duke University revealed the magnitude of the link between shipbuilders and asbestos diseases. In a list of 12 occupations facing a high risk of mesothelioma, shipbuilding had the most cases (289 out of 1,445).

Who Was Exposed to Asbestos in Naval Shipyards?

Anyone working in a shipyard was at risk of asbestos exposure, especially the shipbuilders who constructed these asbestos-laden ships, and there should be long-term health monitoring for shipbuilding industry workers. Longshoreman were not exempt from asbestos exposure either. They did not directly help with the construction of ships, but they helped transport asbestos into the shipyard.

People who updated or repaired ships were also at risk of exposure. Asbestos removal and remediation in shipbuilding projects was common.

Shipyards were hazardous work environments due to the volume of asbestos being used daily. Exposure to asbestos while at work is called occupational asbestos exposure. It is a primary cause of mesothelioma.

Longshoremen and Asbestos Exposure

Asbestos could protect construction elements from fires with its decades-long durability. During the mid-20th century, the mineral was a staple in American industrialism.

Due to the widespread use of asbestos in the United States, longshoremen were among the occupations at risk for repeated asbestos exposure. Mesothelioma, a rare cancer caused only by asbestos exposure, is quite common among shipyard workers, especially longshoremen.

Longshoremen were responsible for loading and unloading ships in a port, which is where they likely handled asbestos. They may have loaded raw asbestos onto ships for transportation to manufacturing facilities, or unloaded tons of the substance mined elsewhere and delivered to their location. 

Longshoremen were on the front lines of asbestos exposure. They also handled various asbestos-containing materials, such as floorboards or cement mixtures. There were numerous avenues for a longshoreman exposure to this deadly substance.

Asbestos Exposure in Naval Shipyards During Mid-20th Century

During World War II, and in the decades to follow, all Naval shipyard jobs were hazardous due to the presence of asbestos. One study of 32 mesothelioma cancer cases found that 13 of the cases involved people who worked previously in a shipyard.

A different study analyzed the rates of diseases among more than 4,000 civilian workers at a U.S. Coast Guard shipyard. Mesothelioma had a significantly higher mortality rate among these workers compared to the general public.

In fact, each job group had an increased mortality rate from mesothelioma. The people who passed away due to this cancer were:

  • One carpenter
  • Two electricians
  • One plumber
  • One vehicle mechanic
  • One machinist
  • Two sheet metal workers
  • One woodcutter
  • One shipfitter/welder
  • One general laborer

“Increased risks for mesothelioma were observed for many occupational groups,” the report reads, “… indicating that asbestos exposure was probably widespread, which has been noted in shipyards by others.”

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Secondary Exposure From Shipyard Workers

Asbestos exposure for shipyard workers and shipbuilders even affected their loved ones. People who worked in shipyards would bring loose, dangerous asbestos fibers into their homes via their clothing or work uniforms. Their wives, daughters, sons and other family members were at risk of secondary asbestos exposure to them despite never working in an at-risk job.

One study analyzed 274 wives, 140 daughters and 79 sons of former shipyard workers from Long Beach, California. These family members had no other known experiences with asbestos, yet many still developed an asbestos-related disease. For instance, 39% of the wives in the study reported a pleural abnormality, which could be related to pleural mesothelioma.

Example of a Shipyard Worker Filing a Mesothelioma Lawsuit

A former shipyard worker from New Orleans is an example of why we urge victims to file mesothelioma lawsuits. Henry P., a 74-year-old man who resides in Texas, received a favorable $10.3 million verdict.

His attorney filed his case in New Orleans, where he worked in the 1960s as a longshoreman at the city’s port. The case was against Ports America Gulfport, Inc., Atlantic & Gulf, Cooper T. Smith Stevedoring Co., and South African Marine.

Henry worked as a longshoreman for 4-5 years in New Orleans during the 1960s, when the United States economy still heavily relied on asbestos.

Help for Shipyard Workers and Shipbuilders With Mesothelioma

If you have mesothelioma now and worked in a shipyard during the mid-20th century, please reach out to our team. We can also help if you have mesothelioma and are the spouse or child of a shipyard worker. Our staff can provide support options for you and your loved ones as you face your diagnosis and treatment. You should also consider taking legal action, as many shipbuilders and shipyard workers have received mesothelioma compensation to help pay for medical care.

Please email one of our patient advocates, Carl Jewett, at cjewett@mesotheliomaguide.com for help in learning about your shipyard asbestos exposure.

Sources & Author

  1. Malignant Mesothelioma and Occupational Exposure to Asbestos: an Analysis of 1445 Cases. National Library of Medicine. Retrieved from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12036093/. Accessed: 08/11/2020.
  2. Domestic Asbestos Exposure: A Review of Epidemiologic and Exposure Data. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3863863/. Accessed: 08/14/2020.
  3. Mortality among shipyard Coast Guard workers: a retrospective cohort study. Occupational and Environmental Medicine. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2078389/. Accessed: 08/14/2020.
Devin Golden

About the Writer, Devin Golden

Devin Golden is a content writer for Mesothelioma Guide. He produces mesothelioma-related content on various mediums, including the Mesothelioma Guide website and social media channels. Devin's objective is to translate complex information regarding mesothelioma into informative, easily absorbable content to help patients and their loved ones.