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Asbestos Exposure and the Merchant Marines

The Merchant Marine is a civilian fleet that carries imports and exports during peacetime, but it becomes an auxiliary branch of the Navy during wartime, delivering troops, munitions and supplies. During World War II, the U.S. Government determined what cargo was carried as well as the fleet’s destinations. The Government contracted with private companies to operate the ships, but it armed them with guns and put Navy personnel on board. It also trained the civilian men on board these ships to assist in manning the guns.

The Jobs Aboard Ship were Broken Down into Different Departments

The civilian personnel aboard these ships were employed in jobs belonging to one of the following categories:

  • Deck — navigation or cargo management
  • Engineering — propulsion or maintenance of equipment
  • Steward/hotel — food services and sleeping quarters
  • All of these men were exposed to asbestos as part of their normal routine.

The Tight Confines of These Ships Increased the Rate of Asbestos Exposure

Asbestos could be found in boards, pipes, decks, ducts, insulation, paint, oils, lubricants, gaskets, and cords used throughout the ship as well as in the heating and communication systems. Asbestos was even contained in the blankets used in the sleeping quarters. This meant that not only was everyone exposed, but the health risks from exposure were intensified because of the lack of space and the poor ventilation.

The most obvious route for exposure was during repair activities when workers were exposed at a higher rate because cutting, breaking, sanding, and scraping disturbed the asbestos fibers and released them into the air. The dust that resulted from repair work was directly inhaled by these workers.

The most susceptible of the maintenance and repair workers were those in the boiler room because boilers contained a high percentage of asbestos until the mid-1970s. Even now, boiler room personnel aboard Merchant Marine vessels can potentially be exposed to asbestos. That’s because most boilers remain operational for at least 30 years or more, so today’s maintenance workers may be repairing old equipment with asbestos-containing materials.

The Merchant Marine’s Role in Cargo Transportation also Increased the Crew’s Asbestos Exposure

One of the primary responsibilities of this fleet during both peacetime and war is the transporting of goods. During World War II, the Liberty ships of the Merchant Marine carried 75 percent of all of the cargo used by the armed forces. Approximately 3,000 of these ships were built during the war, and most of the wartime Merchant Marine personnel sailed on them.

The cargo that these ships carried included asbestos-containing materials used by the military in the war effort. The loading and unloading of these supplies was another way that the crew members aboard these ships were exposed to asbestos.

Being Outfitted for Wartime Service Brought with it Another Form of Asbestos Exposure

President Roosevelt said that the members of the Merchant Marine were “fighting side by side with our Army and Navy.” These men were at the front starting from the time they left port; and their vessels were vulnerable to attack by submarines, bombers, and land-based artillery. That’s why it was necessary to outfit them with guns. And just like the crew members aboard Navy ships, when these guns were fired the vibrations caused huge amounts of asbestos fibers to be released into the air. These fibers spread all over the ship and could be inhaled by everyone on board.

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