Asbestos on Ships

2013-08-19 12.07.29

A couple of weeks ago, during a short break in London, I paid a visit to HMS Belfast a battle cruiser that served in the Royal Navy from 1939 until 1963. Today it’s moored on the Thames and is part of the Imperial War Museum.

I think that most Occupational Hygienists find it difficult to leave the day job behind, so as we were following the visitor route around he ship I couldn’t help but notice the amount of asbestos lagging present on pipes, boilers and other equipment.

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It was everywhere. In fact I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much asbestos in one place.

I was glad to see that the Imperial War Museum had taken their responsibility to protect the health of their visitors, workforce and contractors. It seems like they have had a comprehensive survey undertaken and the lagging all seemed to be in good condition with labels applied at various points to make it clear that asbestos was present.

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There was also a notice telling visitors about the presence of asbestos and that they should make sure that they didn’t disturb asbestos containing materials.

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People often panic when they see or hear the word “asbestos”. But it can only cause harm if the microscopic fibres are inhaled. So as long as asbestos containing materials are in good condition and aren’t disturbed, airborne dust shouldn’t be created and so the risk to health should be negligible. And from what I saw as I walked around the ship, there was no cause for concern.

It would have been a different matter when the ship was being built, repaired and renovated. Shipbuilding is one of the highest risk occupations for asbestos related disease. That’s not surprising given the extremely high concentrations of dust that used to be generated during work with asbestos products during shipbuilding and ship repair work (there’s an interesting paper on this published in the Annals of Occupational Hygiene in 1971 which makes interesting reading).

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4 thoughts on “Asbestos on Ships

  1. My experience is almost the same, with a little difference.
    I went on the HMS Belfast with my family and enjoyed this very nice visit. I am pretty good at english despite I am French. I did not notice the asbestos warnings at first, but in the middle of my visit, especially when going down to the motors. Then I remember I promised to look for a translation later because I didn’t know the word “asbestos”, which is very far from the “amiante” word in french. Maybe I have seen the warning signs you show in your article, but as it takes longer time for a foreigner to read, and that I didn’t no the word asbestos, I didn’t notice more than that. I supposed these were warnings linked to the fact you are on a boat, and the corresponding risk (do not lean on the gate etc…). However, as this is a museum, and that London is a touristic destination, I find regrettable that no additional attention was brought to us on that subject, for example when buying the tickets, entering the visit or being given the audio comments devices (that did not include any warning in french too). Regrettable.

    • Hi Louis
      No need to be too concerened. So long as asbestos is well contained, as it appeared to be on HMS Belfast the risk is practically zero for visitors. Asbestos can only cause harm if rhe fibres are released. The labelling on the pipes and equipment is really to warn maintenance workers who could disturb it during intervention to maintain or repair the equipment. They then know to take appropriate precautions.

  2. Thanks for the answer. Just nice to know before than after, it is just a question of information, as I suppose visit would not be authorized if there was a health concern. I would like anyway to emphasis the visit was great, really interesting and original.

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