Shipyards, a Crucible for Tragedy
Part 3: Turning a blind eye
By BILL BURKE, The Virginian-Pilot, May 6, 2001
The industry's cover-up did not keep the truth from federal health officials,
among them Navy doctors and other government health experts.
As early as 1922, the Navy knew of the dangers of asbestos. A Navy medical
bulletin published that year included asbestos work on a list of hazardous
occupations and suggested that respirators be used in the workplace.
By the late 1930s, Navy medical corpsmen were issued handbooks advising
them of the hazards asbestos workers faced.
In a March 1941 letter to the Navy's surgeon general, Cmdr. C.S. Stephenson,
the Navy's chief officer for preventive medicine, wrote of asbestos workers
in shipyards: ``I am certain that we are not protecting the men as we
But the Pentagon ignored these warnings in the 1940s. The country had
a war to win.
Dr. Leonard Goldwater, a Navy industrial health officer during World
War II, testified in 1988 that the Navy could have built ships during
the war in ways that would have minimized health risks.
But Goldwater said he ``recognized the fact that if we tried to do all
the things that might have protected these people, we would have gotten
no ships built, and that seemed to me a more important concern.''
So as the Navy's occupational hygienists fretted over the incipient
dangers of asbestos, other Navy officials negotiated with manufacturers
to buy vast quantities of the material for shipboard insulation. For America's
asbestos makers, that would mean a financial windfall.
Some of the products were made to precise Navy specifications. In 1939,
the Navy issued Spec. 32-F-3, which required a minimum of 95 percent asbestos
fiber in felt insulation made by Johns-Manville. In 1941, Spec. 32-M-1e
called for millboard, a paper used as a fireproof sheet, that contained
at least 75 percent asbestos.
Other products carried the Navy's imprimatur: ``450 Cement for Navy''
and ``Superex Cement for Navy.''
The process of installing shipboard insulation released vast amounts
of asbestos dust in the bellies of the ships and in the fabrication shops
where the materials were sawed to fit the curves and bends of pipes, valves
The dust levels in the cramped shipboard working quarters were similar
to, and sometimes probably exceeded, those in the European textile factories
where studies had shown high disease rates. So the government moved to
ensure safety in such an environment.
In 1943, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox and the U.S. Maritime Commission,
which regulated private shipyards, issued a document titled ``Minimum
Requirements for Safety and Industrial Health in Contract Shipyards.''
It set standards for asbestos tradesmen and workplaces in all yards that
built or repaired Navy ships, requiring the segregation of dust-producing
jobs and special ventilation of dusty areas, and mandating that asbestos
workers wear respirators and receive periodic medical examinations.
Enforcing the standards was delegated to the shipyards. But during the
war years, those standards were not enforced.
At the time, the public gave little notice to occupational safety issues.
Federal agencies that would one day regulate workplace safety had not
been created. Ralph Nader had not yet begun his public health crusades.
Still, the blame-fixing between government and industry had begun.
Years later, government officials would insist that industry executives
had withheld vital information about the dangers of asbestos. They claimed
that those executives had continued their conspiracy of silence even as
new information came to light about links between asbestos exposure and
cancer: Asbestos companies funded studies, then suppressed the most damning
And industry officials argued that the Navy had failed to tell them
how hazardous the working conditions in the shipyards were, and pointed
out that the government did not even enforce its own safety standards.
Against that political backdrop, millions of Americans were called to
duty in the massive, pulsing, dusty shipyards that were the setting for
the nation's most vital war industry.