Living With Mesothelioma -My Diary- Rays story of Fiber Glass another Lung Damaging Material

Rays story —

With all this talk of dangers of asbestos and my past involvement. There is also  the dangers of Fibre Glass. I first came in contact with this material in about 1961. Whilst working in the Naval Dockyard the gang that I was assigned to were  working afloat doing normal  ship repairs. Work at that time was a bit slow and with hindsight, not enough to  keep all the shipwright gangs in plentiful labour. I remember one morning we were assembled and told by our Chargehand that the entire gang had been given special duty. We were to be re located in the Boat house. This was a very large building that  specialised in  building and restoration of small crafts. Oh well we thought its winter  and it will at least be inside in the dry.

On arrival we were lectured on the work we were expected to do. It was to experiment on replacing the aluminum submarines superstructure  with fibreglass.

We were schooled in the use of  fibreglass. But first we had to build full size moulds of the entire length of a submarine. This  now occupied a large are of this  building and we were  seen as interlopers and not taken to  very kindly. It was considered not shipwrights work. But with the moulds built with the precision of the exact dimensions of standard superstructure they now had to be finely polished this was hard work but essential if we were to build in them and safely remove  the finished item and be able to continue using the moulds.

When the day came to commence working  with fibreglass we were assigned 4-6 or 8 men to a section depending how large a section we were given. There were 4 of us in my section. We were given a metal roller with a handle of some 6 feet in length. A large full arms length pair of rubber gloves. And what was a rarity  a brand new pair of overalls that needed to be changed daily,and several Brushes. At each section was a 40 gallon drum of acetone this was to clean  brushes and gloves.

After absorbing our lessons on mixing and cutting we set to The mould had to be covered with a layer of black gel coat and left to harden off. After that it required individual layers  totaling at least 20 layers each had to be left to harden In the meantime we had to  build the  frames using the same process. These frames were inserted in there correct place and left to set. It was then able to continue until the glass was about an inch and a half thick various strengthening strips were layered. When all the mat layers were laid and set. That was the end of the part one. Now it was the curing process. A multitude of electric and gas heaters were placed in the moulds and the whole assembly was encased with  tarpaulins and plastic sheeting. We were  assigned a night-shift to  do what we called cooking the boat. A specific temperature over a given time all of which was given to us by the inspector was set up all we had to do was check it. When it was considered cooked we were back on day shift and set too dismantling   heaters  tarpaulins etc. Next  came the hard task of  popping the finished structure out of the mould using brute force. Bearing in mind these sections were  16 feet to 25 feet in length and standing inside one they were  over our heads. I cannot remember the weight . But it took the overhead crane to move them. They now had to be trimmed to size using a compressed air saw and a rasp. and sandpaper. This is the part that  was the worst. Because even when we were building them you could see that the air  all around us was thick with fibres floating. All of which we were breathing in. No masks were provided no mention of  the health risks.

This was about  building  a section. The sad bit is when all the sections were built they were  loaded onto a fleet of lorries and taken  to the submarine to be fitted. They were  taken on trials in the Baltic for diving trials.

Unfortunately it appeared that on diving each  section was ripped off and lost. We were then to build all over again, This time with metal inserts for securing purposes. apparently   this time a bit more successful. But that was all we ever built-in Chatham. We were told that operations were now being moved to Bath for refinements. As I  later understood it no further sections were built and the navy reverted to conventional methods.

As a foot note here of a lighter note: It’s always the case that a group of  workmen together will produce a clown. Of our 20 odd men we were no exception. If you can imagine these sections had to be built upside down so we actually had to stand inside  of them. It was only possible to communicate with  another  team by shouting over the top of yours. During this time one particularly un funny clown thought it was great fun to urinate in a plastic bag and toss it into your section with  an obviously unpleasant result. After some searching the culprit was traced. Revenge was plotted. So  one of the traits of  fibreglass and catalyst mixing is it has to be all mixed in the right proportions. I don’t remember how but it was discovered that if you mixed the catalyst with   sugar the result was a nasty big bang and possible fire.

So the plotted revenge was that we would pour a substantial amount of  this creamy catalyst  into this guys toolbox mixed with a generous helping of sugar. The toolbox contained the guys going home clothes and sandwiches. After  setting it up we just had to wait and see what happens. It was while and we feared it wasnt going to work. But we were rewarded with shouts  and swearing from  a couple of sections away as this guys toolbox erupted with not so much a bang but a hot burning mess that destroyed it and its contents. We were all reprimanded but as they say revenge is sweet.

The mention of the word fire  always reminds me of those days because the volume of  resin and chemicals involved in this process was significant and was housed in a separate bricked room . Access was limited to the mixer man whose job it was to dish out your mix for you. But he had a bad habit. It was part of our duty to be allocated a week at a time fire picket duty. OK no problems.

But the bad habit the mixer had ,was he Smoked. He had been warned several l times.

On this particular day I was busy in my  section when I was hit in the chest with  a fire extinguisher. Hurled at me by  no less than God the Foreman he was screaming at me Fire FIre Move your ass its fire. I dashed up to  his pointed direction sure enough it was the mixing room in which we has 40 gallon drums of resin and 35 gallon drums of catalyst, This lot was well and truly ablaze. I had no sooner reached the doorway when someone actually pushed me inside. The heat was horrendous and I could not breathe. I turned to get out but was hit in the face with the contents of an extinguisher. Now unable to breathe or see properly I remember dropping or falling to the floor and crawling back out of the door coughing and half blinded. I never remember what happened to my extinguisher but I  quickly got away from the fire the shouting and left them to it. Soon the fire brigade arrived and saved the day. But its a day I will never forget.


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