Firemen (FN) and Firemen Apprentices (FA) were assigned to work in the engineering spaces where all of the piping and equipment was covered with asbestos insulating products. They were heavily exposed to asbestos as they maintained and repaired the shipboard equipment and machinery. Those who served as Firemen and Firemen Apprentices remain at risk of contracting an asbestos-related disease, including mesothelioma.
Firemen were typically assigned to the engine rooms, fire rooms, and auxiliary machinery spaces, for training, watch-standing, and maintenance duties. As a member of a damage control party, they served within any engineering spaces where casualties or drills would occur. They also spent time every day in the ship’s public spaces, such as the galley, berthing areas, lounges and recreational areas.
Primary Shipboard Activities
Reporting to his first ship, a Fireman Apprentice was assigned to the Engineering Department. Most new arrivals spent a tour temporarily assigned to the galley spaces for mess cooking duties for approximately 90 days.
Upon returning to the Engineering Department, he was assigned to one of several divisions, typically B – Boiler Division, M – Mechanical Division, or A – Auxiliaries Division, depending upon any advance training or preferences. He maintained the cleanliness of his assigned engineering spaces and the associated berthing compartments. A Fireman Apprentice was assigned to various maintenance and repair efforts for on-the-job training in a wide variety of activities typical of engineering rates, including repairing and repacking valves and repairing pumps and related machinery.
A Fireman also was assigned a series of watch-standing duties where he learned the start-up, operation, shutdown and emergency procedures associated with the various pieces of equipment throughout his assigned spaces. His initial duties would be simple and well-supervised, but over time he would be expected to become sufficiently proficient in the various junior “watch stations” that he would be designated as “qualified” on that station. Finally, in conjunction with his divisional and watch-standing duties, he learned the technical and organizational aspects of naval engineering necessary for advancement.
A Fireman’s Exposure to Asbestos
Exposure in Machinery Spaces
A Fireman’s direct exposure to asbestos dust occurred while he was involved in routine watch-standing and in the operation, maintenance, and repair of the engineering equipment and the associated piping and valves. All the piping and equipment that operated at higher than 125 degrees Fahrenheit was insulated with asbestos-containing materials. Asbestos was used to improve thermal efficiency, reduce ambient air temperatures in the spaces, and ensure personnel safety from burns. In addition, most piping was joined to valves and equipment with asbestos-containing gasket materials, and many pumps and valves were packed against shaft or stem leakage with asbestos-containing packing materials. Even piping that carried cold fluids such as seawater was typically insulated with asbestos as an anti-sweat measure.
Exposure in Common Areas
Firemen were also exposed to asbestos when they were outside of the machinery spaces. Hot water and steam-heating piping traversed the berthing spaces for which a Fireman was assigned cleanliness responsibilities; the mess decks where he spent time as a mess cook; and the galley where the crew ate and gathered for social functions and entertainment.
Exposure Through Routine House Cleaning in Engineering Spaces
Aboard Navy ships at sea, Firemen Apprentices and Firemen performed most of the routine housecleaning chores in the engineering spaces. Given the soot, oil, grease, insulation residue, gasket remnants, and other debris in abundance; the significant circulating air flows caused by large ventilation systems; and the innumerable nooks and crannies caused by the geometry of the major equipment and the thousands of feet of piping and valves, it was a fact of life that dirt and asbestos dust went everywhere, and cleaning it up was a difficult and dirty job.
Shipboard piping systems typically utilized portable removable asbestos insulation pads over valves and other components subject to periodic maintenance and repair access. This was true with respect to the spaces of his division, and also to the recreational and berthing areas to which he was assigned.
Because of this, a Fireman in an engineering division frequently came into contact with the asbestos debris where insulation had been disturbed. Asbestos dust was released from the insulation through the normal conduct of personnel traffic and activity, by being bumped or damaged during some proximate repair work, or from the physical shock of the ship’s motion while in heavy seas or during gunfire actions.