Asbestos: Maritime’s ticking time bomb

John Chillingworth, senior marine principal at Lucion Marine, has said that the International Maritime Organization (IMO) should amend regulations banning the use of asbestos and asbestos containing materials (ACM) in ships.

Regulations under the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) state that if asbestos is found onboard a ship built after July 2002 then the vessel’s flag registry, in conjunction with its classification society, issues a non-extendable exemption certificate, providing the owner with a three-year window in which to remove the asbestos.

Any ship built before 2002 may contain asbestos, but must have a hazardous materials’ register and management plan in place to cover any maintenance or repair work involving asbestos.

Chillingworth said that this situation could be considered “somewhat ridiculous”, adding that while originally it might have been thought a straight forward move to ban asbestos in ships built after 2002, the reality is that the system was failing.

He said that it was possible to correct this by ensuring that all new vessels had an approved asbestos survey before they were delivered to operators but Chillingworth accepted that there were significant logistical challenges.

He said that in the EU alone there are 30,000 ships requiring an Inventory of Hazardous Materials (IHM), of which an estimated 80% would be found to contain some form of asbestos.

Chillingworth noted that the term “asbestos free” could be misleading, as there were different international standards. In the US it was up to 1.0% content, while in the EU it was 0.1%. In Australia it was zero. But China had no official standard and up to 15% asbestos had been detected in materials that had been declared asbestos-free in China. He said that the problem was compounded by the fact that there was no testing and certification of materials by manufacturers.

The usual procedure was for a shipyard to issue a declaration that its vessel was “asbestos free” before the classification society mad a notation to that effect on the operating certificate based on a statement of fact. While authorities such as Australia and the Netherlands were aware that these declarations could be inaccurate, and insisted that a ship registered under their flag has a verification asbestos survey performed by a marine specialist ISO17020 accredited company, Panama, Liberia and UK, among other major flag states, still accepted a classification society’s inspection for an annual operating certificate. This was despite the fact that the “asbestos free notation” was based only on a shipyard declaration.

Chillingworth said that a proactive prudent approach could prevent potential litigation for claimed exposure to asbestos from the ship’s crew, protecting ship owners. It could also enhance the true value of the ship and eliminate any potential issues if asbestos was found during a pre-purchase survey.

Ultimately it would protect the crew and anyone else working on the ship.

Chillingworth said that the IMO would be justified in modifying the SOLAS requirement for asbestos in ships and instituting a more manageable procedure that would contribute to securing the safety of seafarers. He said that such a modification would encourage owners to action the IHM inspections now, rather than leaving it to the last minute.