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Asbestos Exposure and the Brooklyn Navy Yard

Legally Reviewed by Joseph P. Williams on July 1, 2022

Some of the most famous U.S. naval ships—including the USS Missouri and USS Maine—were manufactured at New York’s Brooklyn Navy Yard, which was operational from 1801 until 1966.

But many people, including former Brooklyn Navy Yard workers, have only begun to learn about the facility’s dark final decades in which asbestos was widely used in ship-building and repair. In recent years, a number of individuals employed at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and other shipyards have been diagnosed with mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer caused by asbestos exposure.

A Brief History of the Brooklyn Navy Yard

The land for the Brooklyn Navy Yard was acquired by the federal government in 1801, though it did not formally see activity as a shipyard until 1806.

The facility served as a key repair yard for battleships during the War of 1812 and was later instrumental to the Union during the Civil War. Between 1861 and 1865, the Brooklyn Navy Yard’s workforce jumped from 3,700 workers to 6,200. Over the course of the Civil War, the Brooklyn Navy Yard built 14 large vessels and retrofitted more than 400 commercial vessels to bolster the Union’s blockades against the Confederate Navy.

brooklyn navy yard in the late 19th century
A late-19th century warship docked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where asbestos was long used in shipbuilding and repairs.

During World War II, the Brooklyn Navy Yard became known as the “Can-Do Shipyard” because of its mass production of ships. In the war’s peak years, the yard had 75,000 employees and a payroll of $15 million per month.

Women and minorities comprised a significant portion of this workforce. By 1945, about 10 percent of the Brooklyn Navy Yard’s employees were female, and about 8 percent were African-American. After the war, however, most women and many minority employees were terminated from their jobs; by 1946, the Brooklyn Navy Yard’s workforce was again nearly all male.

After World War II, there was a decline in shipbuilding, and the number of employees at the Brooklyn Navy Yard dropped to about 10,000 by the end of 1947. When the Korean War began in 1950, the shipyard temporarily increased ship production again, taking on about 20,000 employees, and cutting the workforce in half again at the end of the Korean War in 1953.

Over time, the number of workers at the Brooklyn Navy Yard continued to decrease. The shipyard gradually became technologically obsolete as newer ships were too large to pass under the Manhattan Bridge or Brooklyn Bridge and could not get to the yard for retrofitting and repairs. When the yard’s closure was announced in 1964, the remaining 9,500 workers were laid off over the course of a year and a half until the shipyard officially closed in June of 1966.

Soon after, the Brooklyn Navy Yard site was redeveloped as an industrial park. Managed by the New York City-established Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation, the former shipyard today is referred to as “The Yard” and is home to nearly 300 businesses that employ more than 7,000 people.

For many former Brooklyn Navy Yard workers, the final chapter of the shipyard’s history was unwritten until decades after the site was shuttered when it became apparent that widespread asbestos use led to mesothelioma in hundreds of laborers.

Asbestos Use at the Brooklyn Navy Yard

Many products used in manufacturing at the Brooklyn Navy Yard from the 1930s to 1966 contained carcinogenic asbestos. Asbestos was prized in shipbuilding and other industries for its insulative properties and heat resistance.

aerial view of the brooklyn navy yard
An aerial view of the Brooklyn Navy Yard site.

Asbestos was routinely utilized to insulate steam pipes in ships built and repaired at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and other shipyards. There was even an asbestos mixing room where workers would combine magnesium oxide and asbestos fibers to make the insulation. Additionally, protective clothing worn by welders and foundrymen included asbestos fiber in the leggings, aprons and gloves. Asbestos was essentially everywhere.

By the 1940s, the health risks of asbestos exposure were becoming more widely known, if not well publicized. Studies indicated that when asbestos fibers broke down and became airborne, the material could lodge in the lungs and contribute to cancer.

In the ensuing decades, as an increasing number of former workers developed asbestos-related diseases including mesothelioma, evidence mounted that the Navy was aware of the serious health risks associated with asbestos but failed to warn many laborers of its hazards. As a result, employees at the Brooklyn Navy Yard were ill-informed and under-protected, despite their daily exposure to asbestos.

Workers Who May Have Been Exposed to Asbestos

Brooklyn Navy Yard workers who faced an especially high risk for asbestos exposure included:

  • Electricians
  • Insulators
  • Pipefitters
  • Plumbers
  • Welders
brooklyn navy yard
Individuals who worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard between the 1930s and 1960s may have been exposed to asbestos.

However, it’s important to note that asbestos exposure may not have been limited strictly to employees who handled the material directly. Asbestos use was so pervasive in shipbuilding and repair that practically any workers may have been routinely exposed.

Because mesothelioma symptoms are typically not evident until decades after asbestos contact, many individuals who worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard during its final years of operation are only now being diagnosed with mesothelioma.

Legal Action for Asbestos Exposure Victims

Financial compensation is available for mesothelioma victims, including from trusts that were established to pay asbestos-related health claims on behalf of entities that manufactured asbestos or whose employees had contact with asbestos-containing products.

Led by accomplished New York mesothelioma lawyer Joseph P. Williams, The Williams Law Firm has helped mesothelioma patients and their families from across the country recover the compensation they need to cope with medical costs and other expenses associated with mesothelioma treatment. If you or a loved one was diagnosed with mesothelioma, please call us today at 855-575-MESO (6376) or contact us online to arrange your free, no-obligation consultation.

The Williams Law Firm is based in New York, but we work with asbestos exposure victims and their families nationwide.

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