More than 100 years after the first case of death by asbestosis was diagnosed, asbestos is still being used in ships. Rob Coston reports
Asbestos is an excellent electrical insulator and is highly heat-resistant, making it a perfect material for use in ship construction.
Yet as long ago as the 1900s doctors began to notice lung problems and early deaths in asbestos mining towns.
By the 1950s exposure to fibres of the substance was known to cause asbestosis – inflammation and scarring of the lungs that causes shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing, and chest tightness, with complications including lung cancer and pulmonary heart disease.
It was also known to be the major cause of malignant mesothelioma, a previously rare form of cancer that often affects the lungs. Symptoms of mesothelioma include shortness of breath due to fluid around the lung, a swollen abdomen, chest wall pain, coughing, tiredness and weight loss.
In short, asbestos is deadly – the only surprise is that it took until the 1970s for governments to begin banning its use. Today, it is prohibited in 67 countries and territories including the UK, EU, Australia, Singapore, Japan, and New Zealand.
Yet as a recent webinar held by Ship Management International revealed, asbestos is still being fitted in ships. Even now, seafarers are being unknowingly exposed and people working in ship repair are more likely to come into contact than those in any other industry.
More than half of ships affected
In a presentation given at the webinar, Kevan O’Neill, marine services director at hazard management company Lucion Marine revealed the scale of the problem:
'Lucion Marine conducted 597 inspections during the two-year period up to December 2020. 332 of those vessels [55.6%] were found to have some form of asbestos-containing materials on board,' he said. 'This constituted 3,641 separate items, 84 of them in the highest category of risk, requiring more immediate remedial attention.'
You've got pitching and rolling, enclosed spaces, the vibrations of the ship's engines, all of that inevitably means that there will have been dangerous exposure to a lot of seafarers. As a working environment, it is unique and very dangerous.
Jonathan Bruce, partner, HFW
Legal support: the Nautilus Asbestos Register
Nautilus maintains a register where members can record their exposure to asbestos at any stage of their career. This can be used to support claims if evidence of an asbestos-related disease emerges. Nearly 400 seafarers are currently listed.
Nautilus has helped members to receive millions of pounds in compensation after they developed an asbestos-related disease. Since 2008, claimants with pleural plaques have been awarded over £90,000; those with other illnesses such as lung cancer and asbestosis have been awarded over £180,000; and those with mesothelioma have received more than £3,000,000.
To add your name to the register, please email firstname.lastname@example.org and request an Exposure to Asbestos Registration Form.
If you do contract an asbestos-related disease, please contact our legal team immediately – time limits apply for making compensation claims.
Health and wellbeing support: contact your caseworker
The Nautilus caseworker project provides one-to-one advice and assistance to retired seafarers and their dependants on health, financial, and other issues.
Last year the service helped people in need receive more than £1 million in welfare benefits and grants from maritime charities, ensuring they could access life-changing support.
If you have an asbestos-related health or financial issue, get in touch for help via email@example.com or call 0151 346 8840.
Most commonly, Lucion found asbestos in pipework flange gaskets, woven pack and gasket materials, hand pumps and isolation valves, electrical components, brake shoes for anchor windlasses and where these components are kept in stores which could lead to further contamination of other material. This was an industry-wide issue, not confined to particular sectors.
Another panellist, Jonathan Bruce, a partner at legal firm HFW, pointed out the extra risk to seafarers compared with people in other industries like construction: 'You've got pitching and rolling, enclosed spaces, the vibrations of the ship's engines, all of that inevitably means that there will have been dangerous exposure to a lot of seafarers. As a working environment, it is unique and very dangerous.'
The SOLAS Convention mandated phasing out the use of asbestos on ships long ago: it must be managed properly when installed on ships built before 2002. Its installation was prohibited from 2002 with a few exceptions until, finally, all use was banned on ships constructed after 1 January 2011.
Yet there are clearly a lot of ships that still contain it. Ships built before 2002 can contain an unlimited amount of asbestos as long as they have a plan for managing it, but modern ships are also affected.
The panellists highlighted that this is because components are often produced in countries like China, which do not have a zero-tolerance approach to asbestos. Even if a ship undergoes maintenance in, say, Australia – where substances must contain 0% asbestos to be certified as asbestos-free – then the fact that the raw materials for manufacturing come from China mean that it can often slip in via an Australian-manufactured component during a refit, despite national rules. In addition, countries that are not signatories to SOLAS are not bound by the Convention's rules on asbestos.
What to do
The important thing is for seafarers to be aware of the scale of this issue, so they can keep an eye out for potential contamination. If a seafarer suspects there is asbestos aboard, it is important to inform the company immediately. They should then take various actions, including informing the flag state.
Thomas Klenum, senior vice-president maritime operations for Liberia's deputy commissioner of maritime affairs, explains what the flag state's response is when informed by a company that asbestos has been found aboard a vessel: 'The focus is to ensure compliance with the applicable rules and regulations and thereby manage the risk to ensure the safety of the seafarers on board. Therefore, when we are notified about asbestos on one of our flag vessels, then we see three different options available to address this serious issue,' he says.
'First, to immediately remove the asbestos in a safe and responsible manner by a professional asbestos removal company. Obviously, this is the preferred option but it is often not possible to immediately remove asbestos as it requires proper planning.
'Second, we can issue a temporary exemption certificate in accordance with IMO MFC circular 1374. That can be valid for up to three years and require the ship management company to implement an effective maintenance and monitoring programme which should be included in the company's safety management system as part of the ICM code.
'Finally there is the last-resort option to leave the asbestos in place. That can only be applied in exceptional circumstances where a risk assessment study suggests that removal could have a higher risk to the seafarers' health than containing asbestos on board. This approach can only be allowed by enforcing a strict and effective maintenance and monitoring programme. With suitable risk control measures in place including air quality measurements and also seafarers health checks, an exemption certificate is issued with the validity of up to three years and renewal is only granted upon satisfactory review.'
If the asbestos is not immediately removed, the company should put in place an asbestos management plan to assess the material and the potential risk posed to the crew. Access to the site of the asbestos should be restricted and seafarers should be informed about safe systems of working in the vicinity of any asbestos and trained to ensure they can carry on with their jobs safety, without the risk of exposure, until a professional company can remove the hazardous material.
View the entire webinar here.