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 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
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'
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
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.
Part 2 of Shipyards, a Crucible for Tragedy