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Asbestos Use and Exposure on Merchant Marine Vessels

Although the United States Merchant Marine fleet was once essential to our wartime efforts and to international commerce, those that worked on the fleet were exposed to asbestos, a deadly material. Exposure to asbestos on these ships placed these workers at a high risk of developing asbestos-related illnesses such as mesothelioma.

Updated by: Laura Wright on

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About U.S. Merchant Marine Ships

Employees of the United States Navy worked extensively with asbestos throughout the 20th century. During peacetime and wartime alike, the Merchant Marine Fleet was central to the prosperity of the nation.

When the United States was at war, the fleet was utilized to equip troops with the supplies they needed.

In peaceful years, the ships were still needed for the import and export of goods in foreign and domestic commerce.

World War I led to an expansion in American shipping, beginning with an emergency shipbuilding program that began in 1917 — ships that relied on asbestos.

The expansion continued in the years after World War I and by the early 1920s, the U.S. had surpassed the U.K. for merchant fleets. More than 700 large steel freighters and almost 600 smaller sized freighters had been built.

By the time World War II had arrived, the United States merchant marine had a new purpose. The ships were used in a variety of military operations throughout the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

Post-World War II, foreign services on the main trade routes continued to thrive. Domestic shipping declined slightly in favor of railway transportation and trucking.

But all these ships still relied on asbestos, and veterans who served aboard them are now at risk of deadly cancers like mesothelioma.

Asbestos Use in Merchant Marine Vessels

Although an impressive fleet, the United States Merchant Marine vessels were rife with asbestos.

Asbestos-containing products could be found in:

  • Boilers
  • Turbines
  • Pipes
  • Oil burners
  • Insulation
  • Ceiling and floor tiles

Handling any of these asbestos-containing products could put veterans at risk of deadly illnesses decades later.

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High Asbestos-Risk Occupations on Merchant Marine Vessels

Merchant mariners encountered plenty of risks on the job, but asbestos posed a long-term health hazard that presented itself in many places aboard these ships.

Although many merchant mariners encountered asbestos in the machinery, engines, furnaces, and boilers, certain workers were more likely to be dangerously exposed.

Because asbestos is most dangerous when it is disturbed, the mariners who were required to handle or disrupt asbestos-containing products were more likely to ingest its fine fibers and develop asbestos-related illnesses.

Ship Engineering and Maintenance

Some of these workers included the engineers responsible for installing or fixing the boilers, pipes, engines, pumps and oilers. When performing repairs, these engineers often had to encounter asbestos that had deteriorated or crumbled.

Airborne asbestos in boiler rooms and the engine room resulted in many workers being exposed, due to the small and close working quarters.

Secondhand Exposure

Of course, workers in all positions on the ship ran the risk of being exposed. Secondhand asbestos exposure sometimes occurred when workers or families breathed in the asbestos fibers that had gathered on another’s clothing.

The pipes that were insulated with asbestos also ran throughout the ships, causing the potential for exposure just about anywhere.

Shipyard Workers

The workers that built the ships also suffered a significant risk of exposure to asbestos during the building process. These shipyard workers did not have the protective gear that is required to handle friable asbestos today.

It’s important to note that even current merchant marine vessels may feature boilers built in or before the 1970s. As a result, those working in proximity to these boilers or performing repairs on them still encounter the hazards of handling asbestos-containing products.

Help for Merchant Mariners With Mesothelioma

The dedicated workers that helped build and run these ships during the vessels’ prime are at risk of developing asbestos-related illnesses.

Because mesothelioma symptoms can take decades to appear, patients are usually not diagnosed until many years after they were exposed to asbestos on the job. But that doesn’t mean that you don’t have options.

Speak with a member of our team as soon as possible to learn more about your compensation options and how you can get justice for you and your family. See all the ways we can help. Get our free mesothelioma guide today.

Written by:

Lead Editor

Laura Wright is a journalist and content strategist with more than 15 years of professional experience. She attended college at the University of Florida, graduating magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in journalism in 2008. Her writing has been featured in The Gainesville Sun and other regional publications throughout Florida.

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  1. “Merchant Marine.” Retrieved from Accessed on April 27, 2018.

  2. Kaiser Permanente. “In defense of Henry J. Kaiser’s World War II ship quality.” Retrieved from Accessed on April 27, 2018.

  3. US Department of Transportation. “State of the United States’ Merchant Fleet in Foreign Commerce.” Retrieved from Accessed on April 27, 2018.

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