When it was reported that delegates at the 2010 TUC Annual Conference, held in Manchester, voted in unanimous support of the campaign by Nautilus International – the  Union for maritime professionals at sea and ashore – to “secure tougher controls against the threats posed by asbestos on ships”, it should come as no real surprise.

Ship building was one of the major UK industries who were reliant on the comprehensive use of asbestos as a cheap form of anti-corrosive, heat resistant insulation for much of the 20th century. Up until the late 1970s, when asbestos awareness and acceptance finally led to the introduction of its complete ban, over 300 asbestos-containing materials were installed into Royal Navy vessels, which are continually being rediscovered, still in place to this day.

The Nautilus motion declared their concern over the continued presence of asbestos on ships – despite international rules introduced in 2002 to ban its use. In 2009, Nautilus had found asbestos in more than 3,500 parts onboard a new ship, and it was recently revealed that 95 per cent of ships checked in the last four years contained the deadly material.

There is a very real risk of asbetsos exposure to workers operating repairs, maintenance, and especially, the break up of decommissioned vessels. Asbestos can be discovered anywhere on a ship, but especially in the engine room,  from the insulation lining of  hot steam pipes, fuel lines, turbines and compressors, through to boilers, exhaust systems, connectors and manifolds, rods, valves and packing assemblies.

It has even been discovered that the problem affects ships which had been certified as asbestos-free. Often components or spare parts containing asbestos would be installed after the vessels had been built and declared safe from asbestos. Nautilus went on to suggest that, “ the maritime industry is still being responsible for exposing its workers to asbestos” and thus, creating new victims of asbestosis, for many decades to come.

The truth of  this assertion lies in the fact that it can take up 40-50 years after asbestos exposure before asbestosis symptoms appear. In the past, this has often meant that former shipbuilding and dockyard workers would only succumb to a form of asbestos-related disease, such as mesothelioma, in their final years. Rapid deterioration often meant that, with only a few months left to live, claims for mesothelioma compensation could be difficult.

A radiological survey of 10 per cent of the dockyard populations of Devenport, Chatham, Portsmouth and Rosyth showed that between 2 and 5 per cent of men aged 50-59 years, had lung or pleura abnormalities, probably caused by exposure to asbestos dust.