In the commercial marine industry, workers face many risks. Long considered one of the most hazardous industries, shipyard and boat-building workers are exposed to numerous chemical and environmental substances. One of the most insidious is asbestos, commonly used in shipbuilding but no longer part of modern vessel manufacture. Understanding the risks of asbestos exposure, coupled with the protection of commercial marine insurance, helps shipbuilding operations keep their workers safer and prevents life-threatening asbestos-related diseases from occurring. 

What is Asbestos?

Asbestos is a group of naturally-occurring silicate minerals that is of a relatively soft and fibrous consistency. It has been used across industries for centuries, as it is resistant to heat, corrosion, and electrical currents. In the shipbuilding industry, asbestos fibers were commonly used as an insulating material for boilers, pipework, and bulkheads. It has also been incorporated into gasketing and flooring materials. Although asbestos is no longer used in shipbuilding, refitting operations of older ships, particularly of military and civilian commercial vessels, can expose workers to the fibers or dust produced by the substance. During the ship decommissioning process, workers may be exposed to high levels of asbestos fibers. As such, it still represents a significant risk to the health and safety of commercial marine workers.

What Are the Hazards of Asbestos?

When asbestos is handled, the material can shed fibers or dust. Enclosed, poorly-ventilated spaces in ships, such as where piping or boilers were located, also tended to accumulate loose asbestos fibers and dust. When inhaled, these fibers embed themselves into delicate lung tissues. The human body responds to the presence of these fibers by forming scar tissue, a condition known as asbestosis. Asbestosis symptoms include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Changes in the shape and color of fingernails and toenails
  • Fatigue

Over time, asbestos can trigger genetic changes in affected tissues, eventually leading to a form of cancer called pleural mesothelioma. There is no cure for mesothelioma. Both asbestosis and mesothelioma may take years for symptoms to appear; workers exposed in the 1970s and 80s may just now be diagnosed with these diseases. Commercial marine insurance protects from many liabilities in shipbuilding operations, but the rates of injured worker claims due to asbestos exposure have put a strain on even the best policies. 

Protecting Commercial Marine Workers from Asbestos Exposure

Shipyard workers may be exposed to asbestos at any time, but particularly during refitting or decommissioning operations on older vessels, such as those constructed during or just after World War II. Because asbestos exposure has been linked to staggering numbers of worker injuries, including fatal cancers, protecting workers from exposure is the foundation of a safe workplace. 

When asbestos is suspected in ships, adequate mitigation or abatement procedures must be followed to prevent the formation and spread of toxic fibers. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) indicates that there is NO safe level of exposure to asbestos fibers. Abatement consists of encapsulating and/or removing contaminated materials. Work areas are sealed off, and shipyard workers are equipped with personal protective equipment (PPE) that include respirators, dustproof coveralls, and positive-pressure ventilation. 

Additional prevention steps are mandated by OSHA regulations. OSHA requires employers to perform air monitoring and to keep records. For workers exposed or potentially exposed to asbestos fibers, medical surveillance practices may need to be implemented. Asbestos awareness and handling training are a critical component of safety, and are designed to help workers understand the risks involved. By providing shipyard workers with suitable training and retraining, as well as ensuring PPE is worn in hazardous areas, commercial marine operations can foster a safer workplace. Together with commercial marine insurance, workplace safety protocols help to protect workers from injuries or illnesses. 

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.