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The Use of Asbestos at Shipyards

Updated: Jun 11


Shipyards have long been hubs of industrial activity, where ships are built, repaired, and maintained. Throughout much of the 20th century, asbestos was a common material used in shipbuilding due to its exceptional properties. However, this seemingly miraculous substance came with a high cost to human health. In this blog post, we will delve into why asbestos was used so extensively at shipyards, the benefits it provided, and the tragic consequences of its use.

The Properties of Asbestos

Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral composed of thin, durable fibers. Its unique properties made it an invaluable material in various industrial applications, especially in shipbuilding:

  1. Heat Resistance: Asbestos can withstand extreme temperatures without degrading, making it ideal for use in high-heat environments.

  2. Insulation: Its excellent insulating properties helped in maintaining temperature control within ships, reducing the risk of fires and conserving energy.

  3. Durability: Asbestos fibers are incredibly strong and resistant to wear and tear, ensuring long-lasting performance in harsh maritime conditions.

  4. Fireproofing: One of the most critical properties of asbestos is its ability to prevent the spread of fire, a vital consideration in shipbuilding.

Applications of Asbestos in Shipyards

Given these properties, asbestos found its way into numerous components and systems within ships:

  1. Insulation: Asbestos was used to insulate boilers, pipes, and engines to prevent heat loss and protect the ship's structural integrity.

  2. Fireproofing: To enhance safety, asbestos-containing materials were applied to walls, ceilings, and bulkheads to prevent the spread of fire.

  3. Gaskets and Seals: Asbestos gaskets and seals were used in various mechanical systems to ensure airtight and heat-resistant connections.

  4. Electrical Insulation: Electrical systems were insulated with asbestos to prevent overheating and reduce the risk of electrical fires.

  5. Soundproofing: Asbestos was also used for soundproofing purposes, minimizing noise levels within the ship and improving the working environment for the crew.

Health Risks and Consequences

While asbestos provided numerous benefits in shipbuilding, its use came with severe health risks. When asbestos fibers are disturbed, they become airborne and can be inhaled or ingested by workers. Over time, these fibers can cause serious health conditions, including:

  1. Asbestosis: A chronic lung condition caused by the accumulation of asbestos fibers in the lungs, leading to scarring and difficulty breathing.

  2. Mesothelioma: A rare and aggressive cancer that affects the lining of the lungs, abdomen, or heart, directly linked to asbestos exposure.

  3. Lung Cancer: Prolonged exposure to asbestos increases the risk of developing lung cancer.

Legacy and Lessons Learned

The extensive use of asbestos in shipyards has left a lasting legacy of health issues among shipyard workers and their families. As the dangers of asbestos became more widely known, regulations and safety measures were implemented to reduce exposure and protect workers. Modern shipbuilding now employs safer alternatives to asbestos, and stringent guidelines ensure that any remaining asbestos is handled and removed safely.


Asbestos was once hailed as a wonder material in shipbuilding, providing essential benefits that contributed to the efficiency and safety of ships. However, the hidden health risks associated with asbestos exposure have cast a long shadow over its legacy. Understanding why asbestos was used at shipyards highlights the importance of prioritizing worker safety and continuing to seek safer alternatives in industrial practices.

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