Because of its strategic location in the middle of the Pacific, Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard was a key ship repair facility during World War II, the Korean War and also the Vietnam War. As a ship repair and maintenance facility, Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard used the same asbestos-containing products as other navy shipyards across the country. Uniform materials standards and practices increased efficiency and lowered costs for the US Navy and its civilian workforce. Military specifications or “milspecs” ensured a certain level of quality for products used and worked performed on its vessels and installations.
Since there is little manufacturing capacity in Hawai‘i, the vast majority of asbestos products used at Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard had to be shipped in from places like the Naval Supply Depot and Naval Supply Center in Oakland, California. Sometimes local distributors would supply the shipyard when it was particularly busy or if there was a shortage of materials. Qualified Products Lists, or “QPL,” allowed the Navy to use products from different manufacturers as long as they met the approved standards. Many asbestos-containing products were on the QPL, and available commercially in Hawai‘i and across the country.
The asbestos used at Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard was found in thermal insulation products such as asbestos pipe covering, asbestos block, asbestos cement or mud, amosite blankets and asbestos cloth, and asbestos gaskets and packing. These products were applied to steam pipes, boilers, turbines, generators, valves, pumps, and other equipment aboard ships and submarines. These asbestos-containing products would be removed and then reinstalled for both minor repairs and major overhauls.
Other shipboard equipment and systems also used asbestos, including asbestos gaskets and packing in pumps and valves, Bakelite and other reinforced plastic components in electrical panels and switchboards, asbestos wire in the communication cables, vinyl asbestos floor tiles and asbestos paints, mastics and coatings.
Asbestos was not only aboard ships stationed or repaired at Pearl Harbor, but it was also found in the buildings and equipment in the shipyard itself.
Removing, cutting, sawing, mixing and installing asbestos-containing products releases large amounts of asbestos fibers into the air. This contaminated dust floats throughout the work space and settles on all the equipment and furniture in the shop. The asbestos fibers become airborne again when disturbed by workers or others in the area.
Shipyard workers and Navy personnel at Pearl Harbor also used asbestos-containing products directly. Welders often placed asbestos cloth over flammable material when welding to prevent fires from welding sparks. Lastly, machinery such as the boilers and generators in the shipyard’s power plant and brakes on the overhead cranes contained asbestos. Maintenance and repair of this equipment are potential sources of asbestos exposure.
In the 1970s, the U.S. Navy began to phase out the use of asbestos in many of its operations including at Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard. Unfortunately, for many shipyard workers and Navy personnel the damage had already been done. Some received compensation for their illness, disability or death by filing lawsuits, Veterans Administration and Workers’ Compensation claims with the help of personal injury attorneys such as the Galiher law firm. The Galiher law firm filed the first asbestos-related lawsuit in 1978, on behalf of Tristan Nobriga, a former electrician at Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard.