Boiler Tenders

Boiler tenders (BT), also called Boiler men, were assigned to the fire rooms within the engineering spaces for training, watch-standing, and maintenance duties. They were responsible for operating and maintaining the boilers and the other steam-driven equipment within the fire room that was heavily insulated with asbestos. Boiler tenders breathed asbestos dust and were unaware of its dangerous properties. As a result, men who served in the Navy as Boiler tenders are at risk of contracting mesothelioma or other asbestos-related diseases.

A boiler tender also served as a member of a damage control party and served within any engineering spaces where casualties or drills occurred. They also spent time every day in the ship’s public spaces, such as the galley, berthing areas, lounges and recreational areas. Boiler tenders were exposed to asbestos through their normal maintenance duties, during their watch-standing assignments, and as they lived and worked in the closed and confined shipboard environment where asbestos insulation was ubiquitous.

Routine Maintenance of Equipment

Boiler tenders performed all routine scheduled maintenance and corrective repairs for the machinery systems and equipment within the fire room. Especially during wartime and training exercises, where the engineering plant was being exercised to its limits and damage was likely, it was likely that a boiler tender spent six to eight hours each day doing preventive maintenance and corrective repairs, in addition to standing watch. Often the extent of needed maintenance and the need to isolate equipment from electrical power and high temperature fluids, required that a boiler or even an entire fire room be shut down and cooled for maintenance. During such periods, an “all hands” effort ensued to accomplish the maximum amount of work in the minimum amount of time. During coordinated efforts such as these, large amounts of asbestos insulation, as well as gasket and packing removals and replacements occurred to boilers, pumps, valves, piping and equipment. This often would involve entry into a boiler for the repair of internal asbestos insulation and refractory materials. Often the “cold iron work list” included a very large number of valves that required repacking – removal of the existing asbestos ring-type packing and installation of new asbestos packing.

Watch-Standing and Equipment Operation

A boiler tender was assigned to various watch stations within the fire rooms, such as Top Watch, Burner man, Feed Pump Watch, and Fire room Supervisor. Being so assigned, he was responsible for the operation of the equipment at his watch station during four-hour intervals. A boiler tender expected to spend at least eight hours per day on watch operating the various equipment and systems associated with an engine room. This included management of fuel and water systems, operation of forced draft blowers, and firing and operations of boilers.

Technical and Military Training

Training time presented a significant risk of asbestos exposure.  For boiler tenders, training most often consisted of creating or simulating unusual fire room situations such as infrequent equipment operations or unusual operating configurations of boilers, major damage scenarios, and generally stressful situations, both for the personnel and for the equipment. One result of stress on equipment was significantly increased shock and vibration, which resulted in the shaking and jarring of asbestos insulated equipment, and inadvertent damage by contact as the crew quickly moved about in very tight spaces to respond to the training scenario. Such activity served to release asbestos dust into the air, invisibly increasing the fiber content of the air that the crew breathed. This presence of airborne contamination was often exacerbated when training scenarios involved shutting down ventilation systems.

Asbestos Exposure in Common Areas

The engineering systems traveled the length and breadth of the ship, including berthing, messing and lounging areas that a boiler tender occupied during off-duty hours. The domestic hot water system, for example, consisted of asbestos insulated piping that traveled to every berthing, sanitary and messing space. In fact, most, if not all, spaces aboard the ship contained asbestos-insulated piping, asbestos-gasketed joints, and valves with ring-type asbestos packing. A Navy ship at sea was in constant motion, due to wind, sea motion, and the internal vibration caused by rotating machinery. The shock of guns firing, heavy rolls while maneuvering, during training or actual close hostile fire situations added significantly to the airborne asbestos contaminants the crew was forced to continuously breathe.

Exposure to Asbestos

Direct exposure to asbestos dust occurred while a boiler tender was involved in routine fire room watch-standing and in the operation, maintenance and repair of engineering equipment, such as boilers, pumps, forced draft blowers, and the associated piping and valves. Hot water and steam piping pervaded the fire rooms where he served his working hours. Hot water and steam-heating piping traversed the berthing spaces for which he was assigned cleanliness responsibilities, and the mess decks, where the crew ate and gathered for social functions and entertainment. Shipboard piping systems typically utilized portable removable asbestos pads as insulation over valves and other components subject to periodic maintenance and repair access.

A boiler tender in B Division frequently came into contact with the asbestos debris where insulation had been disturbed, either through the normal conduct of personnel traffic and activity, being bumped or damaged during some incident or proximate repair work, or the physical shock from ship’s motion while in heavy seas or during gunfire actions. Another aspect of routine maintenance that resulted in asbestos exposure was the periodic and post-repair work space cleanup responsibilities.

On a daily basis, Boiler tenders were also exposed to the asbestos dust and debris carried amongst crew members on their bodies, their clothing and their tools and equipment. All of the crew was exposed to industrial activities where asbestos dust was generated and carried throughout the ship since they ate, slept, and recreated in the same spaces.