Shipbuilding Linked to Mesothelioma


Shipbuilders in the US have faced a high risk of developing mesothelioma, as shipyards were especially dangerous in the 40s and all the way to the 60s before the risks of asbestos use were fully understood. During that time, asbestos was used throughout ships, from the engine room to the kitchen. Men and women who helped build or repair such ships, as well as the sailors who spent months at sea on such ships, faced a sharply increased risk for mesothelioma. For example, between 1982 and 2000, there were 632 cases of mesothelioma recorded (7 times the national average) in Hampton Roads, Virginia.

Last year, about 1,000 employees at Newport News Shipbuilding were moved to temporary quarters after asbestos was detected in the ventilation system of a building where they worked. The employees worked mostly in engineering and design. Although the company has taken several air samples that showed no airborne asbestos was present at that time, asbestos was detected in the building's ventilation system.

Statistics in Italy Show a High Incidence of Mesothelioma

A study conducted several years ago in Italy found a high incidence of mesothelioma among men who worked as shipbuilders in the 1940s to 60s in Monfalcone. A pair of researchers from Italy's Center for the Study of Environmental Cancer examined the Monfalcone shipyard's 1942 hiring records and compared them with archived health records of surrounding hospitals decades later. They discovered the following:

  • a total of 2,776 people (2,653 men and 123 women) were hired to work in the Monfalcone shipyards in 1942
  • between 1981 and 2005, 16 men and 2 women hired in 1942 had been diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma
  • 8 patients had their first exposure in 1942, and the others had histories of previous exposures
  • a third of the mesothelioma cases occurred in people who were only 14 or 15 years old at the time they were hired, even though there were only 557 in that age group
  • of 557 persons aged 14-15 years in 1942, 6 had a diagnosis of pleural mesothelioma
  • the younger a person is at the time of asbestos exposure, the more likely they are to eventually develop mesothelioma
  • people aged 20-29 years in 1942 comprised 672 persons and 11 mesotheliomas
  • people aged 30-39 years in 1942 comprised 580 persons with one mesothelioma

Another study based on death certificates collected in 83 countries showed the highest rates of mesothelioma in the UK (age-adjusted mortality rate 17.8 per million), Australia (AAMR 16.5), and Italy (AAMR 10.3). This being shown, it is easy to see that mortality from malignant mesothelioma has considerably increased in numerous countries.

5 Main Hazards for Shipbuilders

Shipyard employees work in some of the riskiest environments, which makes it a work profile that demands constant caution 24/7. Here are some of the facts that make working in a shipyard such a dangerous activity:

1. Tough working conditions

Shipyards are not one of the most comfortable places you can expect to work in. Constant danger is present during the whole day, and workers, as well as employers, must take several precautions to ensure nobody gets hurt on the job. Extremely cramped spaces, heights, slippery surfaces, machinery, and high pressure in tiny spaces are just a few of the working conditions a shipyard worker faces on a daily basis.

2. Machinery hazard

Work never happens on a small scale in a shipyard! The equipment used on the worksite is often complex, comes in huge sizes, and requires a lot of skill and strength to be handled. Even a small error while working with such heavy machinery can lead to catastrophic injuries and death for any shipyard worker. Records of seriously injured shipyard workers date back to as early as the 1940s.

3. Workload

This is not your regular 9 to 5 office job. The extreme nature of a shipyard job means the employees have to be available at all times, and the erratic time schedules can lead to human errors and, ultimately, accidents.

4. Cramped spaces and high pressure

The tiny enclosed spaces in a shipyard are probably the riskiest places to be working in. Working in such tiny spaces comes with an elevated risk of physical injuries to limbs, head, or other body parts. Suffocation and asphyxiation are also common issues workers face when working in confined places. Often, the high pressure found in enclosed spaces can lead to eardrum rupture. Shipyard workers often complain that their hearing abilities have been affected after working constantly in high-pressure conditions.

5. Asbestosis and mesothelioma

Asbestos, a known carcinogen, is still being used as a construction material in many vessels even today. Shipyard workers involved in the manufacturing and maintenance repairs of ships often are extremely exposed to the dangers of asbestos and the diseases caused by it. Asbestosis and mesothelioma are very serious diseases that can take years to surface. They appear in workers who were exposed to asbestos for a long time at their workplace (occupational exposure).

Workers involved in dismantling decommissioned ships are at high risk for mesothelioma if they accidentally breathe in or ingest asbestos fibers. Even if workers are wearing special negative-pressure respirators and spend a limited time in an asbestos-contaminated environment, according to OSHA's guidelines for safe shipbreaking in the presence of asbestos, they are still at risk of breathing/ingesting asbestos fibers. Thus, even with modern laws and regulations set to protect workers from asbestos exposure, ships and shipyards remain dangerous.

Have You Been Exposed to Asbestos in a Shipyard?

If you are a veteran and have worked in the US Navy, you might have been exposed to dangerous levels of asbestos. Our website is designed to help veterans and all individuals see if their ship or shipyard posed a threat to them. Call us at 760-621-6147 for assistance!

If you have a cancer diagnosis please contact us

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