Occupational Diseases Among Shipyard Workers

The shipyard industry includes workers manufacturing, dismantling and assembling, and performing maintenance on maritime vessels. A number of trades are involved in these processes, including welders, riggers, painters, custodians, mechanics, and more. Throughout the twentieth century, employees in these trades experienced high levels of exposure to occupational diseases, particularly respiratory illnesses.

Asbestos exposure and the smoke inhalation of heavy metals, welding fumes, and other vaporous solvents put workers at risk of lung cancer, mesothelioma, and other chronic pulmonary diseases.
This is an image representing a shipyard graphic.
While regulation has continuously improved safety standards in the shipyard industry, many Americans who worked between 1930 and 1990 were routinely exposed to carcinogens on the job. Prior to the process of replacing asbestos and other hazards on ships, data for retired shipyard workers showed an excess of deaths caused by malignant mesothelioma and cancers of the respiratory system.

In a 1981 study of secondhand exposure to shipyard workers’ families in Los Angeles County, 11 percent of wives, 7.6 percent of sons, and 2.1 percent of daughters showed signs of asbestos-caused lung damage on radiation exams. Moreover, the study revealed that most of the workers exposed to airborne asbestos did not work directly with the material.

Today, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reports that the illness/injury rate for shipyard workers is nearly double the rate for all U.S. workers, and is also the highest rate among other types of workers in the maritime industry. The long-term health effects of these injuries and illnesses can put retirees at risk for developing chronic diseases up to 40 years later.

Some of the most commonly reported occupational diseases among shipyard workers include:

  • Asbestosis
  • Bladder cancer
  • Colon cancer
  • Esophagus cancer
  • Larynx cancer
  • Leukemia
  • Liver cancer
  • Lung cancer
  • Mesothelioma
  • Nasal adenocarcinoma
  • Ocular melanoma
  • Prostate cancer
  • Rectal cancer
  • Stomach cancer

Common Risk Factors

Due to the variety of types of work conducted on shipyards, there are likewise various potential risk factors for injury and illness. Because stricter workplace safety standards in place today have minimized many prior hazards, retired shipyard workers are at the greatest risk of developing a chronic, job-related illness. General shipyard activities like welding, woodcutting, sandblasting, and cleaning could subject employees to harsh fumes and vapors, toxic inhalable chemicals, and several kinds of dust.

The table below links common sources of exposure on shipyards to the most common forms of cancer they cause and at-risk occupations.

Source of Exposure Cancer Type At-risk Shipyard Occupations
Asbestos Larynx, lung, mesothelioma All workers
Benzene Leukemia Painters
Crushed quartz/silica Lung Sandblasters, nearby workers
Heavy metals (i.e., cadmium, chromium, lead) Larynx, lung, nose General laborers, painters, electroplaters, welders, sheet-metal workers
Ionizing radiation Leukemia Nuclear shipbuilders
Metal-working fluids Skin Sheet-metal workers, machinists
Paints Bladder, lung, mesothelioma Painters
UV radiation Ocular melanoma Welders
UV radiation Skin Sheet-metal workers, welders
Welding and flame cutting Lung Sheet-metal workers, welders
Wood dust Nasal adenocarcinoma, nasopharynx Woodworkers

Symptoms of Occupational Disease

Due to the long latency periods of most occupational diseases–ranging from five to 40 years–growing numbers of individuals who worked in shipyards in decades prior are now experiencing symptoms of lung disease. Compounding health problems (like smoking cigarettes and poor diet) can also make it more difficult for individuals to recognize a serious issue. For instance, cough and other flu-like symptoms often mask the early signs of lung cancer.

The most common symptoms of occupational lung diseases found among shipyard workers (i.e., cancers of the lung and larynx and mesothelioma) include a persistent cough, chest pain, fatigue, weakness, and trouble breathing. Shipyard occupations whose main cancer risks are lung cancers and mesothelioma include:

  • Burners
  • Crane operators
  • Electricians
  • Engine fitters
  • General laborers
  • Greasers
  • Industrial radiographers
  • Joiners and woodworkers
  • Laggers
  • Maintenance mechanics
  • Nuclear shipyard workers
  • Oilers
  • Painters
  • Pipefitters
  • Riggers
  • Sheet-metal workers
  • Steelworkers
  • Welders

What Now?

Following a diagnosis of cancer or other lung disease, patients typically seek a second opinion or begin treatment for advanced-stage tumors. If you believe the cause of your illness is work-related, you may have the right to make a legal claim against the company (or companies) responsible. The statute of limitations restricts the amount of time you have to file a lawsuit, so it is important to speak with a qualified attorney as soon as possible.

Fill out a free case evaluation form to be contacted about the possibility of filing a personal injury or wrongful death claim.