Millwrights and Asbestos Exposure


The use of asbestos was very prevalent within the US Navy in the 20th century. It was discovered that this mineral can be used as a fire retardant to prevent boilers, pumps, valves, gaskets, turbines, or other asbestos-containing products on a ship from catching fire. Many US Navy veterans discovered after several years of serving the country that they suffer from serious diseases like mesothelioma, lung cancer, or asbestosis.

A millwright is specialized in installing and repairing heavy-duty machines and equipment like turbines, boilers, and generators. In other words, he is in charge of every device that involves generating and distributing heat and electricity within a building. It is a known fact that these devices easily heat up and light up because of the high temperatures at which the machines were most of the time performing. Asbestos had a very specific role here: to prevent the temperature from going too high and to help machines work at their best rate.

Other workers at risk of asbestos exposure were boilermen, enginemen, gunner's mates, welders, or pump room workers. A millwright's daily tasks, besides working with heavy machines and equipment, included trimming and fitting asbestos-coated metal to size. For this job, a millwright had to cut and grind asbestos fibers, which represented direct contact with the mineral. This way, the asbestos fibers were easily inhaled because the workers did not wear any masks for protection, and they were more likely to develop respiratory diseases.

Walter A., a millwright on USS Oriskany CV-34, said that: "None of us mates knew that we were exposed to asbestos. Of course, back then, no one would tell us the dangers that were about to come along with this exposure. And, most importantly, we did not receive any masks for protection." He is now suffering from stage 4 lung cancer.

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