The Asbestos Hazard at Shipyards  

by Laurie Kazan-Allen



A high incidence of asbestos-related disease has been recorded amongst military and civilian workforces at shipyards in England, Scotland, Italy, Japan, the U.S. and many other countries.1 In the 1898 annual report of the Chief Inspector of Factories and Workshops, clear warnings were given regarding the “abundant evidence” about the “evil effects of [asbestos] dust” by Lucy Deane, one of the country’s first female factory inspectors. While Miss Deane was reporting observations from inspections of factories and workshops, what was true in those settings was clearly also true in other locations where asbestos was used.

In August 1945 Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Factories A. W. Garrett was so concerned about the consequences of asbestos use in the shipbuilding and ship repairing industries that he wrote a letter to industry stakeholders in which he stated:

“while asbestos dust may not have any apparent effects at first, experience shows that, particularly if the workers are exposed to the dust in substantial concentrations, serious results are apt to develop later.”

The subject header of Garrett’s two-page letter was: Asbestos Insulation aboard Ships. In the correspondence, he raised the possibility of statutory measures to protect workers should “reasonably practicable steps” not be taken to minimize occupational exposures. Amongst the steps he called for were:

  • rigorous observation of the provisions of the Asbestos Regulations 1931 regarding protections for people engaged in making asbestos insulation mattresses in shipyards;
  • prevention of “unnecessary concentrations or accumulations of asbestos dust” on board ships through damping down, good ventilation and the implementation of appropriate hygiene;
  • provision of respirators for workers fitting or removing asbestos insulation on the ships as well as for workers engaged in spraying asbestos and workers in areas adjacent to spraying sites; in particular “During spraying, no other person should work in the same compartment unless also provided with a respirator.”
  • an age limit of 18 to protect younger workers from the asbestos hazard;
  • arrangements for the supervision of “the maintenance, care and use of respirators.”

The letter was sent in August 1945 to the Thermal Insulation Contractors Associations (TICA) c/o Messrs. Kitsons Insulations Limited, London Road, Barking. A reply on headed TICA stationary dated 14th September, 1945 confirmed receipt of the Chief Inspector’s letter and requested a further 70 copies be provided “to distribute same to the Members of the above Association.” The distribution of Garrett’s letter and the TICA reply were confirmed in 1973 in a letter from J M Henry of HM Factory Inspectorate.

Considering the explicit threat of statutory action to prevent hazardous asbestos exposures at shipbuilding and ship repairing worksites made by Garrett and the acknowledgement that the Shipbuilding Employers’ Federation and trade unions had been consulted, it is more likely than not that his concerns and suggestions would have been widely circulated not only amongst organizations working on the docks but amongst others in the asbestos industrial sector such as Turner and Newall Ltd., the UK’s “asbestos giant.” Indeed this proved to be the case according to a certified copy of Garrett’s original 1945 letter obtained in 1993 from the Health and Safety Executive. On the top of this copy of the letter was handwritten the following: “Copy to: J W Roberts Ltd., Newall Insulations Co., Miller Insulation Co. Ltd. The typed names of these companies were noted on the bottom of page two of this letter. Under Newalls Insulation Co. was typed “(Branch of Turner & Newall Ltd.), Asbestos House, Southwark Str., S.E.1.”

Copies of documents obtained from the Turner and Newall archive over the years have revealed that the company had frequent contact with other global asbestos stakeholders through formal arrangements such as meetings of the International Asbestos Cement Cartel and through informal channels of communication. The threats of definitive action by the UK government would most definitely have been conveyed via these and other routes as far afield as Australia. According to Australian historian Jock McCulloch Turner & Newall personnel were “in regular contact with James Hardie, the major Australian [asbestos] mining and manufacturing company and they did share technical information.” What was known to members of the Thermal Insulation Contractors Associations in 1945 was certainly known outside this industrial sector and further afield. These facts and these documents are of particular relevance to people with asbestos-related diseases contracted through occupational exposure at shipyards after 1945.

June 20, 2016


1 Profiles of some hazardous industries: Shipbuilding and Ship-breaking.



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