In the 1830’s, factory-based linen production had made Belfast the most important industrial town in Ireland and the addition of shipbuilding in the 1880’s completed its transformation to a major manufacturing city. There was access to a ready pool of unskilled local labour with a robust work ethic and shipbuilding was one of the city’s main employers giving it both wealth and prestige. It was a vibrant, expanding industry whose later decline greatly affected Belfast and its people. The period between 1880 – 1914 was the golden age of Belfast shipbuilding, with massive growth in the industry specialising in passenger liners, cargo-passenger ships and large ocean-going cargo vessels. During this time, Belfast was producing up to 10% of the British merchant shipping output. Harland and Wolff is the best known of the Belfast shipbuilders employing in the period 1900–20, 20 000 workers. Between 1914 – 1918 saw the beginning of a decline of shipbuilding in Belfast. Shipyard work was heavy and hazardous with many physical hazards including falls, noise and vibration. Asbestos was frequently used leading to asbestosis, pleural plaques, and pleural mesothelioma. There were safety and health shortcomings consistent with the time and a health legacy in regard to asbestos-related lung disease, mesothelioma, occupational deafness and vibration white finger. There was recognition of the potential that materials being used may have long latency health risk, avoiding complacency, also that learning from mistakes and improved engineering design and safety equipment on board vessels can markedly improve worker safety and health and save lives. The workers of the Belfast shipyard would perhaps be proud to see their story being told today as part of the regeneration of Belfast with the city moving forward after many years of conflict and decline.
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