The Risk of Toxic Exposure in Shipyards

According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), shipyard workers’ injury and illness rates are nearly double those of the entire U.S. workforce. Additionally, among all types of maritime work, shipyard laborers face the highest work-related injury and illness rates.

Shipyard work includes various types of shipbuilding, cleaning, and maintenance with a range of metals, chemicals, and other potentially carcinogenic materials. As a result, the potential risk of exposure to toxins in shipyards is significantly higher than in other areas of the shipping and maritime industry. The variety of toxins a shipyard worker can come into contact with include:

  • Asbestos
  • Benzene
  • Cadmium
  • Chromium (VI)
  • Coal tar pitch
  • Crystalline silica
  • Electromagnetic radiation (UVR)
  • Ionizing radiation
  • Lead
  • Nickel
  • Metal-working fluids
  • Paints and solvents
  • Quartz
  • Welding and thermal cutting fumes
  • Wood dust

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Why Are Shipyards Potentially Dangerous?

In general, the risk of exposure comes from inhaling hazardous particles or dust. Particles can be spread into the air from welding, cutting wood or metal, paint, fluids, and more. Once ingested, the toxic particles (often too small for the eye to see) can become lodged in the tissues and linings of the mouth, throat, airways, stomach, and other organs.

Over time, hazardous exposure to these materials can lead to cell damage and mutations. Some mutated cells can become cancerous – even up to 45 years later. Many of the people who have been diagnosed with a chronic disease as a result of working in shipyards were exposed to carcinogens between 1930 and 1990.

Lung and stomach cancers, mesotheliomas, and chronic respiratory diseases are risks that have been associated with shipyards. Early symptoms of occupational lung diseases include:

  • Chest tightness or pain
  • Loss of appetite
  • Persistent cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Unexplained weight loss

Who Is Affected by Shipyard Toxins?

Anyone working in or near shipyards can be exposed to its airborne toxins. However, certain occupations have a much higher risk of being affected by cancer-causing agents. Shipyard jobs whose main cancer risks are larynx, lung, and mesothelioma cancers include:

  • Burner
  • Crane operator
  • Electrician
  • Engine fitter
  • Industrial radiographer
  • Joiner, carpenter, woodworker
  • Laborer
  • Lagger
  • Maintenance mechanic
  • Nuclear shipyard workers
  • Oiler
  • Painter
  • Pipefitter
  • Rigger
  • Sheet metal worker
  • Steelworker
  • Welder

In addition to the risks to workers, members of an individual’s household may also be at risk of exposure to shipyard toxins. Studies of Los Angeles County shipyard workers and their families revealed asbestos-related diseases in members of the worker’s household. Between two and seven percent of children eventually developed asbestosis, and 11 percent of wives showed signs of pulmonary disease.

Long-term Health Risks

Some side effects (such as a cough or burning throat) may occur early in a worker’s tenure, though many of the long-term health risks take years to develop. Known long-term health complications caused by toxic exposure in shipyards include the following cancers:

Treatment for cancer typically depends on your stage and prognosis at the time of diagnosis. Surgery may be able to remove large tumors, though other methods (such as chemotherapy, radiation, and immunotherapy) may be used alone or in combination for advanced forms of cancer.

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Legal Aid for Victims

For workers or their family members who have been diagnosed with a chronic disease caused by shipyards, legal and financial aid is available. While workers’ compensation covers victims who are currently employed, others may need to speak with an attorney about their compensation options.

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