Among the greatest hazards for those aboard a ship at sea is the risk of fire. For that reason, insulation against fire was a major focus of ship construction, especially during World War II when these vessels were engaged in sea combat, often sustaining significant damage. Add to that the sudden need for military navy vessels in the Pacific theater and Atlantic landings, which were vital to America’s war efforts, and the widespread use of asbestos in this field during this period is understandable.
Want to know more about mesothelioma? Fill out the form below to receive a free info packet within 24 hours.
Unfortunately, the material chosen to insulate these ships from fire was asbestos. During this period, America’s Navy Fleet grew from under 400 ships to over 6,700 by 1945. That sheer volume of new vessels led to the employment of over four million shipyard workers during this period. Unfortunately, the mobilization for World War II came as the United States struggled to recover from the severe economic downturn that was the Great Depression. Mindful of the nation’s economic situation, asbestos made a natural choice for ship construction because it was inexpensive and an effective insulator against fire, heat, electricity and corrosion.
Unfortunately, the dangers of asbestos exposure were not well-known to the public at this time and these millions of shipyard workers suffered asbestos exposure with little or no protective equipment. Furthermore, these vessels underwent frequent refit, renovation and repair during this period, further exposing these workers to the dangerous fibers, even when new vessels were not being constructed. Even men aboard these military vessels risked significant asbestos exposure below deck in these poorly-ventilated vessels where these fibers could accumulate. Enemy fire and rough seas taxed these vessels throughout their service, easily shaking free the friable fibers.
Despite reports from Europe during this military mobilization, asbestos continued to be used in these vessels. These reports indicated that shipyard workers abroad were getting sick and dying from asbestos-related ailments, warning against the use of this natural insulator. Although regulations were eventually passed, they were ignored until the 1970s, when the immediate threat of war had passed and asbestos’ full danger was revealed. Due to the overriding preoccupation and pressure of war at this time, the military would wait over 30 years before strict enforcement of this material was seen.
This time gap in recognizing the full danger of asbestos saw significant nautical military involvement, as the United States participated in the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Cold War, employing the Naval Fleet heavily and sending a great deal of work to many shipyards at various coastal facilities. Although the production of new ships decreased during this period, refitting, modifications and ship disposal saw workers in this field keep busy and further contributed to the number of individuals who suffered asbestos exposure. Even today, many individuals who worked in this field are only now beginning to exhibit symptoms of disease due to a career spent working with vessels laced with asbestos.