Decades of Denial and Deceit
Part 1: The Navy hunkers down
By BILL BURKE, The Virginian-Pilot
© May 8, 2001
In the early 1970s, as ships returning from the Vietnam War steamed into
the Norfolk Naval Shipyard, asbestos workers in Shop 56 performed a time-honored
Using their brick hammers and their hands, they stripped away old asbestos
insulation so that other workers could repair engines, boilers and reactors.
After the repairs had been made, they turned on band saws and took up
keyhole saws and shears. Then, amid a familiar haze of white dust, they
installed new insulation, just as they had for more than three decades,
through two previous wars and the Cold War.
But that ritual was about to end.
Asbestos, hailed centuries earlier as the ``magic mineral,'' had been
demonized. Cultural, medical, economic and legal realities converged during
a decade of enlightenment regarding health hazards in the American work
place. Asbestos became synonymous with death and disease.
Medical experts were making public ever more frightening discoveries
about the links between asbestos and cancer. They predicted an epidemic
of tens of thousands of asbestos cancer deaths, especially among workers
who toiled in the cramped, dusty confines aboard ships under construction
The Navy had a huge stake in asbestos reform. The service used 298 asbestos-containing
products in shipbuilding, according to Navy documents, and it would take
years, and millions of dollars, to safely remove and replace the insulation
material from its fleet of more than 500 ships.
So the Navy hunkered down, resisting asbestos reforms in court and delaying
the removal of asbestos from its ships. According to interviews, memos
and court documents:
The Navy imposed a ban on use of asbestos on all new ships in 1973,
then violated that ban for at least five years.
After the Occupational Safety and Health Administration set the first
standards for asbestos exposure in the work force in 1971, the Navy and
other major users of asbestos products waged a court fight against organized
labor's efforts to make the standards more stringent. The unions believed
OSHA's asbestos standards were still hazardous for workers.
Some naval shipyards allowed workers to continue using asbestos with
minimal restrictions, and new requirements for workers to wear respirators
were only loosely enforced.
Shipyards continued to allow the training of new asbestos-insulation
workers in 1975, two years after the Navy's ban on new-ship asbestos installation
At one point, the Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth tried to muzzle
shipyard workers who tried to bring asbestos-disease lawsuits.
Even today, the Navy refuses to discuss its past asbestos policies. The
service apparently has never conducted a comprehensive study to determine
the magnitude of asbestos disease among sailors and shipyard workers.
Thomas Dixon, a former supervisor of the welding ship at Norfolk Naval
Shipyard, says that in about 1977, a memo ordered workers to place all
asbestos products in biohazard bags for disposal. Photo by Steve Earley
/ The Virginian-Pilot.
Thomas Dixon of Norfolk, who at the time was supervisor of the welding
shop at the naval shipyard in Portsmouth, says that in about 1977, managers
circulated a memo ordering workers to place all asbestos products in yellow
plastic biohazard bags for disposal.
Dixon, 79, says the memo arrived not long after one of his welders, Frances
Gwaltney, an asbestos cancer victim, filed a lawsuit July 5, 1977, against
Officials at the Portsmouth yard were so concerned about litigation that
in June 1978 they issued a memo prohibiting employees from talking to
civilian lawyers about asbestos disease. A federal judge in Norfolk, however,
struck down the gag order, asserting that it violated the workers' First
Asbestos-control policies and procedures at the nation's oldest Navy
yard apparently were the poorest of the nation's eight then-active shipyards,
according to interviews and court documents.
Michael Montgomery, an attorney representing an asbestos manufacturer,
said during a 1979 court hearing in Norfolk that the Portsmouth yard had
the worst asbestos-control record of any naval shipyard inspected by Navy
investigators in the late 1960s.
Quoting from an inspector's report, he said the floors in the pipe-coverers'
shop was so thick with asbestos residue that they ``looked as if they
hadn't been swept in 20 years.''
At yards in New York, Boston, Philadelphia and California, unions employed
hygienists and epidemiologists who forged alliances with universities
to address the problems of asbestos hazards in the work place, says Sheldon
Samuels, former head of industrial health for organized labor in the United
States and a former government health official.
The unions at those yards also set up training regimens and persuaded
the Navy to sponsor programs to instruct hygienists in asbestos safety
But that was not happening in Virginia, and the naval shipyard in Portsmouth
lagged behind its counterparts on issues of occupational safety, Samuels
Virginia is a right-to-work state, where unions historically have played
minimal roles in health reform. Samuels says there were no compacts between
unions and university health professionals to address asbestos diseases
at the Portsmouth yard in the 1970s.
Compliance with new federal safety standards in the Portsmouth yard came
slowly, he says.
Union safety officials ``made more trips to Portsmouth in those years
than to any other shipyard,'' he says.