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Shipyard Worker Asbestos Exposure

Shipyard worker asbestos exposure throughout the 20th Century has put tens of thousands of workers at high risk for developing mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases.

Asbestos was considered superior to other shipbuilding materials because it was lightweight and fire resistant. Shipyard workers both built and maintained ships used in both military and civilian sectors, ranging from luxury cruise liners to U.S. Navy aircraft carriers.

Laborers in these shipyards included:

  • Electrical workers
  • Painters
  • Welders
  • Plumbers
  • Pipefitters
  • Asbestos Insulators
  • Boilermakers
  • HVAC Workers
  • Mechanics
  • General Contractors

At The Law Offices of Jeffrey S. Glassman, our mesothelioma lawyers in Boston recognize that virtually all laborers and even many supervisors and inspectors were exposed to asbestos.

Massachusetts was home to numerous shipyards, including the Boston Naval Shipyard, which operated from 1801 to 1974. During WWII, that single shipyard alone employed some 50,000 workers to build, maintain and repair naval ships.

The U.S. Navy now reports hundreds of components on its ships contained asbestos. In fact, the mineral was a prime ingredient of:

  • Insulation panels
  • Gaskets
  • Epoxies

Asbestos was used in boiler rooms, sleeping quarters and engine rooms. One could find it in adhesives and pipe coverings and even in the paint. What this means is that almost everyone who worked in a shipyard was at some point exposed to asbestos.

We know now that chrysotile asbestos was used for insulation, tape, packing and gaskets, while amosite asbestos was often used for insulation.

Although no amount of asbestos is considered safe, those who were known to have frequent, heavy exposure to the toxic fibers are believed to be at the highest risk for a diagnosis of an asbestos-related illness.

In addition to the Boston Naval Shipyard, other shipyards in Massachusetts have included:

  • Fore River Shipyard in Quincy
  • Bethlehem Hingham Shipyard in East Boston
  • Gladding-Hearn Shipbuilding in Somerset
  • George Lawley & Son Shipyard in Scituate, Boston and Dorchester
  • Victory Destroyer Plant in Quincy

Those working in these yards were tasked with building, maintaining, repairing, renovating and decommissioning a wide range of ships. Asbestos was one of the few things each vessel had in common.

Why Asbestos Exposure is So Dangerous

As The World Health Organization reports, asbestos is a known carcinogen, which means we know that it causes cancer.

It is the only known cause of mesothelioma, which develops when fibers of asbestos become trapped in the lining of the lungs or the stomach and sometimes even the heart, and cause scarring. Symptoms of mesothelioma don’t surface until usually many decades after exposure. The condition is fatal and there is no known cure, though early detection can prolong one’s life and improve life quality.

Asbestos exposure is also associated with lung cancer and asbestosis – both of which also may take many years to manifest.

Although we think of this risk as solely occurring in generations’ past, the reality is we will be seeing the adverse effects of preventable exposure to asbestos for years to come. The U.S. has not outlawed the use of the material, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration estimated not long ago that 1.3 million employees in construction and general industry face “significant” asbestos exposure on-the-job.

Early symptoms of mesothelioma, according to The Mayo Clinic, include:

  • Chest pains
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue
  • Sudden weight loss
  • Wheezing

Because these ailments can often mirror other less serious conditions, those who have a history of asbestos exposure cannot afford to ignore the possible red flags.

Shipyard Occupational Exposure to Asbestos

Occupational exposure to asbestos in shipyards began from the very moment workers started loading and unloading the building materials that already contained asbestos, and left very few workers unaffected.

  • Delivery. It was not uncommon that the crates, pallets and even wrapping material that was needed to deliver and move these products contained asbestos too. Workers who delivered asbestos-laden products to and from ships were at risk of asbestos illness.
  • Construction. Then there were those who worked in the construction end. Building the ship meant workers had to physically handle asbestos-containing materials, such as adhesives, paneling, pipe covering and more. In some instances, asbestos was sprayed directly on certain surfaces. This spray-on process often was not done with the proper respiratory protections. Asbestos insulators are considered to have one of the highest rates of asbestos-related illnesses.
  • Repair. Once asbestos materials were installed and secured, they generally were not harmful – unless the material became friable and the dust and fibers were released into the air and ingested. This was a risk suffered by those in charge of ship repair, as this type of work disturbed already-installed asbestos fibers.
  • Decommission. As technology advanced and newer ships were constructed, older ships containing asbestos were phased out in a process called “decommissioning.” Shipyard workers were put on charge of dismantling these ships, which resulted in those toxic asbestos dust fibers being spread into the air.

One major issue for many workers is that asbestos was often used in parts of the ship that weren’t well-ventilated, such as the hulls and in the boilers and pipes. That meant workers who were exposed to it were often exposed to heavy amounts. Plus, even workers who weren’t directly dealing with the substance but still in close range were put at risk too.

It’s somewhat ironic that this material that was intended to protect lives ended up having such adverse consequences. However, this was not a fact about which manufacturers or the military was blind.

As noted by research published in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine, occupational health experts began sounding the alarm about the dangers of asbestos exposure in the early 1940s. However, the government and manufacturers failed to appreciate the severity of that impact. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the government started phasing out asbestos in its shipbuilding components, as this was around the time we saw the first large wave of shipyard workers affected by asbestos exposure.

Compensation for Shipyard Asbestos Exposure

Obtaining compensation for occupational exposure to asbestos at shipyards depends on the worker’s role and whether he or she is a veteran.

While there is evidence the U.S. Navy acted negligently in failing to protect sailors from deadly exposure to these toxic fibers, the so-called Feres Doctrine, resulting from the 1950 U.S. Supreme Court case of Feres v. U.S., prevents veterans from collecting compensation from the government through the court system. Instead, veterans may be eligible for disability compensation and health care benefits through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs – so long as they didn’t receive a dishonorable discharge. These benefits are also available for mesothelioma, so long as veterans can prove the exposure occurred during active-duty service.

In addition to these benefits, sufferers of asbestos-related illness may pursue claims against individual asbestos product manufacturers. In the last decade, there have been numerous multi-million dollar verdicts in favor of shipyard workers who were exposed to asbestos while on-the-job.

If you have questions about your rights after shipyard asbestos exposure, we can help.

Contact the Law Offices of Jeffrey S. Glassman today for a free and confidential consultation.

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