Shipyards, a Crucible for Tragedy
Part 1: How the war created a monster
By BILL BURKE, The Virginian-Pilot
© May 6, 2001
Shipyard workers install half-rounds of asbestos insulation on a ship pipe in San Francisco, in this photo taken before 1970. Its ability to withstand high temperatures and corrosion made asbestos an ideal material in shipbuilding.
In 1879, when workers tore open the earth at the world’s first commercial asbestos mine in the Appalachian foothills of Quebec, they unknowingly released a geological genie of death.
For much of the 20th century, efforts to put the genie back into the bottle were thwarted by an asbestos industry that knew of the dangers of its commodity but constructed an elaborate conspiracy of silence.
What asbestos industry executives knew and when they knew it is a matter of public record, having come to light in the late 1970s after the first asbestos-disease lawsuits were filed.
But those executives had an accomplice: the U.S. government, which also knew asbestos was hazardous but turned a blind eye to the dangers throughout most of the 20th century.
Even today, the government has not fully acknowledged the scope of the problem or the extent to which its indifference and denial played a role in the worst work place health tragedy in U.S. history.
The ideal crucible for that tragedy was the American shipyard, circa 1940s.
World War II ushered in a Navy shipbuilding effort the likes of which the world had never seen and likely will never see again.
The American fleet grew from 394 vessels in 1939 to 6,768 in 1945 — a 17-fold increase in six years. More than 4 million men and women heeded the call to build and repair that vast fleet.
The wartime shipbuilding boom created unprecedented demand for asbestos. Its ability to withstand high temperatures and corrosion and its relative abundance in nature made asbestos the ideal material to insulate the vessels’ heat-producing components.
Many thousands of metric tons of the fibrous mineral were used to wrap the pipes and line the boilers, engines and turbines of the ships needed to carry men and munitions into theaters of war in Europe and Asia.
But just as the shipbuilding boom had begun, troubling news about asbestos spread: The inhalation of its microscopic fibers caused workers in Europe to fall sick and sometimes die.
As that news found its way into medical journals, U.S. Navy health officials became alarmed.
In 1943, the government issued standards intended to protect a shipyard work force that labored 24 hours a day, seven days a week in massive fogs of asbestos dust.
But more than three decades would pass before the government would begin enforcing those standards and take steps to protect workers.
It wouldn’t be until the late 1970s that documents surfaced in court, proving that industry officials knew of the dangers of asbestos and tried to conceal them.
In 1979, federal Judge John A. MacKenzie, ruling in a Portsmouth asbestos case, said: “The manufacturers put a lethal risk of harm in (the plaintiff’s) work environment, then allowed him unwittingly to confront the risk with tragic results, on a daily basis.”
Today, current and former shipyard workers and their families are paying a high price. In Hampton Roads alone, thousands have been sickened or killed, and many more will succumb as asbestos disease continues to manifest itself well into the 21st century.
As Sheldon Samuels sees it, their lives were sacrificed by the government they served, by a Navy for whom they built and repaired ships during wartime.
“The Navy looked at the shipyard workers as though they were front-line troops” during World War II, says Samuels, who served with the U.S. Public Health Service and then as the nation’s chief occupational health expert for organized labor.
In fact, working in an American shipyard during World War II would prove to be almost as deadly as fighting in the war.
During World War II, 16.1 million Americans were called to arms. The combat death rate was about 18 per thousand service members. About 4.3 million Americans worked in shipyards during the war. For every thousand wartime shipyard employees, about 14 died of asbestos-related cancer, and an unknown number died of an asbestos disease called asbestosis, or complications from it.
“In the highest levels of government, there was a conscious political decision to sacrifice lives of (shipyard workers) for the war effort,” says Samuels, who, at 71, serves as vice president of a worldwide organization dedicated to advancing occupational health and safety issues.
He describes the government’s decades of denial, and the resulting deaths, as “moral homicide.”
Now, in the third century of the asbestos tragedy, an average of one American per hour dies of workplace exposure to the mineral once prized for its flame-resistant quality.
They are the victims of a cover-up that rivals that of Big Tobacco. But these victims didn’t know they were being poisoned.
It’s a tragedy that didn’t have to happen.