The shipbuilding industry is the single most hazardous work environment in terms of asbestos exposure. Now some Italian executives are being forced to own up to that fact and face jail time. An Italian court has convicted three ex-executives of the Fincantieri shipbuilding company in Palermo of ‘negligent homicide’ in the mesothelioma deaths of 37 former employees. The court ruled the defendants failed to protect or even warn the workers about the inherent risks of asbestos exposure – even though the danger had been known for years.
Shipyards are where large ocean-going vessels, such as cargo ships, oil tankers, military vessels or submarines are built or repaired. Before the health risks of asbestos were known, such as causing mesothelioma, the mineral was prized in the shipbuilding industry for its strength, durability, anti-corrosive properties and heat resistance – qualities which made it an ideal insulator. Until the 1980’s, asbestos was frequently used in ships to cover pipes, insulate walls, floors, ceilings, and boiler rooms, and in gaskets, gasket coverings, turbines and pumps.
Every year, about 10,000 people worldwide, many of them shipping industry workers, contract mesothelioma because of asbestos exposure. Shipyard workers whose job it was to repair ships, sailors who worked on those ships, and even longshoremen who loaded and unloaded ships were routinely exposed to asbestos, with sometimes deadly consequences. A 1980 study conducted at New York’s Mt. Sinai School of Medicine found that, among shipyard workers with 20 years or more of experience, 86 percent showed signs of asbestos-related cancer or other disease. Many of the study subjects had been exposed to asbestos during World War II, when asbestos use was at its peak and the fast pace of ship repair and maintenance had many shipyards covered in the toxic dust.
Workers who are exposed to asbestos over an extended period of time are at highest risk for developing mesothelioma, which may not cause symptoms for 20 to 50 years. Asbestos is no longer used in the construction of new ships, but is still present in older ships, putting those who repair or restore them at continued risk. For this reason, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) now strictly regulates asbestos exposure in shipyards.
But despite such regulations around the world since the 1980’s, many workers, including those who worked at the Fincantieri shipyard, are still being exposed illegally. The Fincantieri company was found to have continued to use asbestos in its shipbuilding operations until 1999, three years after asbestos had been outlawed in Italy. The convicted Fincantieri executives received sentences ranging from three to seven-and-a-half years in jail and will have to pay millions of Euros in damages to the families of the dead workers and to another 26 workers who are still living with mesothelioma.
Ex-Fincantieri Directors Jailed After Asbestos Trial, April 26, 2010, LifeIn Italy.com
Nicholson, William, et al. “Lung Cancer Prevalence Among Shipyard Workers”, January 11, 1980. American Journal of Industrial Medicine, Volume 1, Issue 2. Pp. 191-203.
OSHA Regulations 29-CFR, 1915-1001