THE UK’s second largest trade union, Unite, has raised further concerns about the potential exposure of workers carrying out maintenance work on Sea King helicopters.
Documents obtained from the Ministry of Defence under the Freedom of Information Act have now shown that 90 separate components on the Sea King contained asbestos. Many of these components continued to be used even after a major modification programme took place in 2006.
A statement from the union has said the number of people potentially exposed to asbestos is far greater than first thought with the MoD having admitted ‘around 1,000 people worked on the Sea King at any one time’.
The Sea King was in service from 1969 until 2018 and the union believe this means tens of thousands of employees are likely to have been exposed to asbestos which is known to cause cancer.
Vector Aerospace in Gosport was a maintenance base for the choppers.
A report from Unite also revealed the MoD introduced a traffic light system - considered to be good practice - for the removal of asbestos from the Sea King but this was not introduced until 2018, 12 years after asbestos was first identified in the helicopter.
In September 2018, the decommissioned aircraft made its last symbolic flight over Portsmouth before landing at HMS Sultan to be officially retired.
At the beginning of May 2019, Unite wrote to the new secretary of state for defence and Portsmouth North MP, Penny Mordaunt, about the situation, but to date Unite claims to have not had an acknowledgement of its letter.
Unite national officer for MoD workers, Jim Kennedy, added: ‘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’s the MOD no one appears prepared to act. Penny Mordaunt 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.’
The MoD has said that it has always been open about the potential risks of exposure and has taken action to eradicate the use of any asbestos containing components.
A spokesperson said: ‘The Defence Secretary is urgently reviewing the situation as the safety of our personnel and our partners is always our highest priority. All Sea King items suspected of containing asbestos have been removed from stores. We have written to organisations that purchased or were gifted Sea King helicopters to advise them of the asbestos risk and actions they should take. We have been completely transparent throughout this process and have published comprehensive information for those who may have been exposed in the past, detailing the actions they should take.’
Asbestos exposure has been linked to a form of lung cancer known as mesothelioma. Tiny asbestos fibres enter the lungs where they get trapped, damaging the lungs and over time and potentially causing the cancer to develop.
According to Unite, Portsmouth, Gosport and Havant are in the top 20 places in the UK for mesothelioma deaths.