Shipfitters and shipyard workers have been an important part of the American economy since Jamestown was first formed. They work on everything from military vessels to fishing boats to luxury cruise liners. The jobs shipfitters perform includes general contracting, plumbing, building, painting, welding, insulating, electrical work, repairs, and more.
For years, asbestos was something shipfitters came into contact with on a regular basis. It was especially popular on military ships where many believed that the heat resistance of the asbestos made the ships better able to withstand open sea attacks. In addition to being heat resistant, the asbestos also provided insulation to the ship and resisted the corrosive effects of saltwater.
Ships built prior to the 1980s were packed full of asbestos. It could be found in the insulation, the gaskets, some of the engine parts, and even in the paint. At the time, no one realized the terrible toll the asbestos would play in the lives of the shipfitters.
For the past several years, shipfitters, Navy veterans, and people who worked on the docks have been diagnosed with mesothelioma, one of the three serious, often terminal, diseases linked to asbestos exposure. Today, the court system is full of cases of shipfitters who have filed lawsuits against the shipyard owners that once employed them, especially in both New York state and coastal California cities. These lawsuits aim to cover the costs of medical care for shipfitters who were exposed to asbestos while working.
Asbestos Products and Locations
Until the 1970s, the U.S. Navy authorized the use of more than 300 asbestos-containing products during ship construction and repair. Asbestos was frequently used for any part located near high temperatures and any area where there was potential for corrosion. Asbestos material was used in engine rooms, cabins, pipe covering, ship interior insulation, as adhesives, in valves, and was often the in the cement that held gaskets together. Even the paint contained trace amounts of asbestos. Asbestos was also found in many of the crates and pallets the shipyards used.
The Effects of Asbestos Exposure
In the 1980s, it became clear that asbestos was causing an influx of lung cancer cases and other respiratory diseases that came to be known as asbestosis and mesothelioma. Although anyone who worked in the docks and shipyards is at risk for asbestos-related disease, the shipfitters at the greatest risk are those who handled the asbestos materials, particularly if they were responsible for unloading or loading materials.
When dealing with componentry or packing crates that contained asbestos, shipfitters were constantly at risk of inhaling or ingesting the microscopic asbestos particles that took to the air during abrasion. These particles embedded themselves into the lining of the lungs, heart, or stomach and eventually led to numerous diagnoses of mesothelioma, lung cancer, and asbestosis.
The shipfitters themselves aren’t the only ones at risk for developing illnesses as a result of asbestos exposure. Their loved ones are also at risk. The fibers were often transported from the shipyards to the shipfitters house, clinging to their clothing and hair and endangering anyone that came in contact with the contaminated materials.
Surprising Study Results Show High Risk of Health Problems for Shipfitters
In 2008, the U.S. National Institutes of Health conducted a study they named “Asbestos and Ship-Building: Fatal Consequences”. They concluded that shipfitters were 16 times more likely to be diagnosed with an asbestos-related illness than someone in another occupation.
If you worked in a shipyard prior to the 1980s, tell your doctor and set up a screening process that monitors for the early signs of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related illnesses. The sooner the signs of the disease can be detected, the greater the odds that treatment will extend your life expectancy.
You should also contact a mesothelioma lawyer. Multiple shipping companies have taken steps to help shipfitters who have developed asbestos-related illnesses. Your lawyer can connect you with a service that helps you find the resources you need and can explain your legal options.