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Asbestos Exposure in Shipyards

In addition to the shipyards owned by the U.S. Navy, there are also privately owned shipyards. In 1991, The Maritime Administration conducted a survey of shipbuilding and repair installations in this country. The agency reported that the Navy operates eight shipyards and two ship repair facilities, while private sector companies own more than 200 shipyards.

Different Data Sources Report Different Findings

The number of reported private sector companies engaged in shipbuilding and repair has changed depending on when the report was written and which governmental agency was doing the reporting:

  • The 1987 report from the Commission on Merchant Marine and Defense put the number of private working shipyards at 305.
  • The 1987 Census of Manufactures, published by the Department of Commerce, said that there were 590 shipyards operated by 547 firms. Additional data provided in that report said there were 287 shipyards with twenty or more employees.
  • The 1993 Industrial Outlook, published by the Department of Commerce, estimated that there were a total of 585 of these types of establishments.

The Number of People Employed in Shipyards has Also Changed Over the Years.

Shipbuilding employment among private sector companies has also had its ups and downs. It was at an all-time high in 1981, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, with an estimated 184,000 shipyard workers. It dropped to 118,000 in 1992. In 1990, The Department of Transportation said that the five biggest private shipbuilding and repair companies employed 81,000 workers. The agency also noted that the 12 firms that had at least 1,000 workers employed a total of 98,000 workers.

Private Sector Shipyards Can be Classified into Separate Categories

The biggest problem in classifying shipyards is that many of the companies that own them are very small, only operate at certain times of the year, or remain in operation for only short period of time and then close.

In spite of this, the government has classified private shipyards into three main categories:

  • Large shipyards involved in construction and/or repair that have drydocking facilities.
  • Smaller shipyards that handle inland waterways and coastal commerce. They also build and repair smaller vessels.
  • Repair facilities that work on ships while they remain in the water.

The Larger the Shipyard, the Greater the Risk of Asbestos Exposure

According to the Occupation Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the highest percentage of asbestos work is carried on in the largest shipyards. It identified between 13 to 23 of the largest shipyards, employing about 74,000 to 80,500 workers, of which approximately three percent perform maintenance and repair activities. That means that 2,220 to 2,415 workers are exposed to asbestos during their normal work day.

Some Activities Have a Greater Potential for Asbestos Exposure

OSHA has also noted that certain activities increase the risk for asbestos exposure even higher. In fact, the greatest potential for occupational exposure is associated with removal activities that involve sawing, tearing, cutting, and scraping.

Additional asbestos exposure happens as a result of repair activities, like the removal and installation of gaskets. Precautions such as thoroughly wetting the asbestos during removal activities are followed to lessen the danger from exposure. However, these precautions are not always feasible. A good example of this is in nuclear reactor compartments where wet removal is not allowed because of the potential for radiation contamination.

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