The Brooklyn Navy Yard Was a Ground Zero for Asbestos
“My father worked as a welder for the Brooklyn Navy Yard during and just after the war. He’d come home from work, very dusty….full of soot…powder. I would take his clothes to the Laundromat twice a week. I don’t remember how long I did it…I just wanted to help my mother. She knew the stuff was bad, and tried her best to keep it out of our house, but it didn’t matter, really. My father said he literally laid in the asbestos powder and the dust…”
The Brooklyn Navy Yard, located in Brooklyn, New York, was one of the most important shipbuilding facilities on the east coast. In an effort to fortify American efforts during World War II, employees were expected to perform a number of potentially life threatening tasks. They were in charge of repairing Navy vessels and constructing new ones. They routinely conducted electrical work, sandblasting, welding, pipe fitting and insulating. Most, if not all, of these activities involved asbestos in some capacity, which meant that the workers were in contact with the deadly fibers on a regular basis.
During World War II, “the Brooklyn Navy Yard’s workforce swelled to over 70,000 employees,” including women. By 1966, when former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara closed the Brooklyn Navy Yard the amount of employees dropped to “approximately 9,000.” (Brooklyn Navy Yard)
Here is a list of some of the sea vessels constructed or repaired at the Brooklyn Navy Yard:
- USS Austin (LPD4)
- USS Alexander Hamilton
- USS Algonquin
- USS Bennington
- USS Brooklyn (CL40)
- USS Constellation (CVA64)
- USS Dolphin (SS169)
- USS Fairfield
- USS Helena (CL50)
- USS Iroquois
- USS Mosholu
- USS Wasp (CV18)
During World War II, “airplanes of all types- fighters, bombers, transports etc., developed rapidly. The Americans produced the largest numbers of generally superior warplanes,” (Ace Pilots) and the Brooklyn Navy Yard witnessed the building and launching of three such carriers:
- USS Constellation
- USS Independence
- USS Saratoga
Why was the construction of these vessels so perilous?
“The health hazards of asbestos were known for some time prior to the 1940s. In 1942, Philip Drinker of the Harvard School of Public Health issued a report on asbestos dangers. It stated: “Asbestosis is caused in connection with the handling of asbestos. This is not unlike silicosis in its effects and we rather expect it to occur in shipyards because we have seen asbestos being handled in installation work with little or no precautions.” (CRC Net Base)
Aside from the expected dangers that accompanied the handling of heavy equipment, employees of the Brooklyn Navy Yard had to contend with an additional danger: asbestos. The carcinogen was used to insulate virtually every chamber in the naval ships, from engine rooms to sleeping quarters. Those who participated in the construction of aircraft carriers also risked exposure to asbestos. It was used in the construction of airplane engines, brakes, valves, adhesives and hundreds of other items.
Involvement in the construction and repair of the ships and planes was not the only way a Brooklyn Navy Yard employee such as your father could have been exposed to asbestos. Asbestos was used in the construction of buildings and others facilities in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, which meant that even those who did not personally handle asbestos, were at significant risk of exposure.
Like many Americans, the workers of the Brooklyn Navy Yard praised the victory of America and her allies, which could not have been accomplished without the grueling work of shipyard employees across the United States. Sadly, as the decades passed, many of these men and women found that they could not perform the most basic tasks without tremendous effort. This was not a result of advanced age, but of their exposure to asbestos as young people. Brooklyn Navy Yard employees and other shipyard workers “account for a large percentage of asbestos plaintiffs—about half of all asbestos claims pending in 1983 were brought by shipyard workers.” (Lexis Nexis)
Not long after our inception, Weitz & Luxenberg secured a $75 M dollar verdict for a group of former Brooklyn Navy Yard workers, who had been exposed to asbestos in the 1940s and 1950s. This money was invaluable in helping them finance any necessary medical treatments, and also to establish a trust fund for their families. It was one of our landmark cases.
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Ace Pilots: www.acepilots.com/planes/main.html
Lexis Nexis: https://litigation-essentials.lexisnexis.com/webcd/app?action=DocumentDisplay&crawlid=1&doctype=cite&docid=67+N.Y.U.L.+Rev.+1034&srctype=smi&srcid=3B15&key=d8d6616a3daff70581936e25ebcc480a
Brooklyn Navy Yard: www.brooklyn-navy-yard.com/brooklyn-navy-yard-history.html