The commercial marine industry is well known as one of the riskiest industries. Workers in shipyards, cargo ports, and manufacturing operations are exposed to a wide variety of risks, including workplace hazards like burns, slip and fall injuries, and crush injuries from equipment and falling objects. One of the most commonly-overlooked risks in the marine industry is that of disease exposure. Boat manufacturer insurance protects against numerous risks in the commercial marine sector, but a better understanding of disease risks will help facility managers ensure a safer workplace for employees. 

Disease Risks in Shipyards?

It may come as a surprise to many that disease risks, particularly respiratory diseases, have long been a part of the commercial marine industry. Workers subject to certain environmental and chemical exposures may develop life-threatening diseases, costing millions of dollars in medical expenses as well as in lost wages for those affected. 

According to statistics compiled by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Center for Maritime Safety and Health, there were over 54,000 non-fatal injuries and illnesses reported between 2011 and 2016. This staggering figure is nearly seven times the rate for all U.S. workers. Many of the injuries and illnesses were due to environmental and chemical exposures, and include high instances of cancers of the respiratory system. 

Respiratory Diseases in Shipyard Workers

Workers in shipbuilding face significant respiratory risks in their daily operations. Exposures to chemicals, welding fumes, solvents, and asbestos account for a high percentage of diseases in the maritime industry. Common respiratory threats in shipbuilding include:

  • Exposure to beryllium, which is used in abrasive (“sand”) blasting during shipbuilding. Beryllium exposure can cause chemical pneumonia, leading to lost work hours and chronic lung inflammation. In certain cases, shipyard workers may develop a condition called berylliosis, for which there is no cure.
  • Exposure to asbestos, which was commonly used as pipe, boiler, and bulkhead insulation and may be released during the refitting of older vessels. Inhalation of asbestos dust and fibers can result in a disease called asbestosis, where lung tissues are inflamed and scarred from the fibers. In some cases, this inflammation can lead to a cancer called mesothelioma. Mesothelioma tumors may be found in the lungs, heart tissues, and digestive systems of affected workers. There is no known cure for these cancers. Shipbuilding operations have been found negligent in protecting workers from asbestos fibers. As a result, millions of dollars in boat manufacturer insurance claims and lawsuit verdicts or settlements have negatively impacted the shipbuilding industry.
  • Exposure to welding fumes, particularly zinc. This disease is sometimes referred to as metal fume fever or “welding shivers”, and can result in temporary or permanent disability. 

Environmental Disease Exposures in Shipyard Workers

Respiratory diseases are not the only disease risk shipbuilding workers face. Exposure to environmental pathogens also accounts for millions of dollars in lost wages and permanent disability, not to mention avoidable deaths among workers. 

One of the biggest disease risks comes from exposure to contaminated saltwater. A disease pathogen called Vibrio vulnificus can infect those with cuts or open wounds – all too common in the shipbuilding industry. Vibrio is sometimes referred to as “flesh-eating” bacteria and can result in ulceration and tissue damage. In severe cases, those affected may require extensive surgery, including amputation of infected tissues. 

Other pathogens may exist in seawater, including staph bacteria, other forms of Vibrio, and viruses. Together, these pathogens account for a significant loss of productivity and millions of dollars in occupational insurance claims. 

Managing Disease Risks in the Shipbuilding Industry

Shipyard workers face numerous risks, and diseases are only some of the many factors that can negatively impact worker health and safety. Shipbuilding businesses should strive to protect their workers from disease risks, supplementing the protection afforded by boat manufacturing insurance policies. Providing workers with personal protective equipment (PPE) is critical. For those workers who may be exposed to chemical or environmental materials, respirators are essential in preventing inhalation. Splash and immersion hazards may be mitigated by protective equipment. Identifying workplace hazards and reducing or eliminating them is the key to a safer workplace, regardless of industry. In commercial marine operations, worker safety must take priority, helping to prevent the acquisition of life-threatening diseases that rob operations of productivity. These safety measures also reduce the instance of insurance claims, helping provide better financial security for companies in the ship- and boat-building industries. 

About Merrimac Marine Insurance

At Merrimac Marine, we are dedicated to providing insurance for the marine industry to protect your clients’ business and assets. For more information about our products and programs, contact our specialists today at (800) 681-1998.