Unite has uncovered “shocking safety failures” on maintenance undertaken on Sea King helicopters that potentially exposed Ministry of Defence (MoD) workers and contractors to asbestos.
The revelations, unearthed following a Freedom of Information request by the union, deepens the ongoing scandal surrounding the exposure of Sea King maintenance workers to the dangerous substance.
The MoD has now been forced to admit that 90 separate components on the Sea King helicopter contained asbestos and that many of these continued to be used even after a major modification programme in 2006, up until the helicopter was decommissioned in 2018.
Unite national officer for MoD workers Jim Kennedy said, “The scandal of the government’s failure to remove asbestos from the Sea King, or to even inform the affected workers and contractors, is growing.
“At every step in the process the MoD has failed to take effective measures. If this had been a private company which was guilty of such catastrophic failures, the Health and Safety Executive would have stepped in and taken action but because it is the MoD no one appears prepared to act.”
The scale of the number of people potentially exposed to asbestos while working on the Sea King is now far greater than first thought.
The MoD has admitted that “around 1,000 people worked on Sea King at any one time”, however as the Sea King was in service from 1969 until 2018, tens of thousands are likely to have been exposed to asbestos.
Of even greater concern is the significant failure by the MoD to ensure that asbestos was removed from the Sea King once it had been identified.
The MoD has admitted that even when components were identified as containing asbestos, they were replaced with new parts which also contained asbestos, until those stocks ran out.
Not until 2018, shortly before the Sea King was decommissioned, was all stock containing asbestos finally removed from use.
Despite 90 Sea King components being known to contain asbestos, only two risk assessments were conducted by the MoD as the risk of exposure was “not considered to be high”.
These risk assessments were based on the possibility of a worker developing asbestosis, a scarring of the lung tissue caused by heavy exposure to asbestos.
However, the risk assessment would have been much greater if measured against the danger of developing mesothelioma, the incurable and fatal cancer of the lining of the lung, which is caused by inhaling asbestos and occurs with far lower levels of exposure.
Also while the MoD did introduce a traffic light system for the removal of asbestos from the Sea King, it was not introduced until 2018 – a dozen years after asbestos was first identified in the helicopter.
Since the scandal was exposed last year, the MoD has consistently refused to even attempt to contact the affected workers and contractors to inform them of potential exposure.
At the beginning of May 2019 Unite wrote to the new Secretary of State for Defence Penny Mourdant about the scandal, but to date Unite has not even had an acknowledgement of its letter.
Ms Mourdant’s indifference is especially shocking as not only is she a Royal Navy reservist but the Sea King was principally based close to her Portsmouth North constituency, meaning that many of her constituents are likely to have been exposed to asbestos.
Portsmouth and the surrounding towns of Gosport and Havant are in the top 20 towns in the UK for mesothelioma deaths.
Jim Kennedy added, “Penny Mourdant and the officials at the MoD need to stop pretending this problem will just go away and introduce effective measures to ensure all workers and contractors potentially exposed are properly informed.”
If you believe you have been exposed to asbestos, immediately record the details on Unite’s online asbestos database.
If you are diagnosed with an asbestos-related disease immediately contact your Unite regional legal officer.
Local asbestos victim support groups can be found at asbestosforum.co.uk.