MoD faces criticism as it admits widespread asbestos failings

Frances Perraudin
Photograph: PO John Lowther/Navy/PA

The Ministry of Defence has admitted widespread failings in the management of asbestos across its estate, prompting accusations that it could have handed a “death sentence” to thousands of employees exposed to the carcinogen.

The government undertook a review of asbestos in relation to defence after it was revealed in July 2018 that thousands of staff could have come into contact with the substance on Sea King helicopters over a period of nearly 40 years.

In a letter to the Unite union, shared with the Guardian, the defence minister Annabel Goldie said: “Regrettably, this work exposed failings beyond Sea King, and it is now clear that ACM (asbestos-containing materials) have not been properly identified and tracked across a range of equipment platforms.”

Lady Goldie said the review had discovered asbestos at RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire and that two out of four hangars had been closed for a cleanup. Asbestos was also found at MoD Lyneham in Wiltshire, where three hangars had to be closed, and at the MoD vehicle and equipment storage site in Ashchurch, Gloucestershire.

Jim Kennedy, Unite’s national officer for defence staff, to whom the letter was addressed, described it as an “extraordinary admission from the MoD”.

He said: “After months of denials it has finally admitted that their systems for monitoring and preventing exposure to asbestos are entirely inadequate. As a result, thousands of civilian staff and members of the military have potentially been exposed to asbestos, which could have potentially fatal consequences for them.”

Goldie said that as a result of the review, “urgent work is under way across defence to ensure … that the necessary modification, replacement, and disposal actions are implemented.”

Kennedy said the union would meet the MoD’s new senior team “to ensure the past and contemporary failures are remedied”. He said: “It is essential that the MoD no longer place its workers, contractors and visitors in life-threatening situations.”

The annual death toll from asbestos exposure in the UK is at a historic high. The most recent figures from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) show that in 2017 there were 2,523 deaths from mesothelioma, a cancer of the lining of the organs caused by the inhalation of asbestos fibres. It is estimated that a similar number of people died that year from asbestos-related lung cancers.

Following the discovery that many of the components in the Sea King helicopters contained asbestos, Unite has campaigned for the MoD to contact the estimated 1,000 workers who undertook maintenance on them.

In her letter, Goldie wrote: “It is not possible to individually identify and contact everyone that may potentially have come into contact with [asbestos-containing materials] on Sea King or other platforms.” She concluded that senior leaders were “now engaged [with the issue] collectively in a way that they perhaps previously were not, at least in the recent past.”

An MoD spokesperson said: “The health and safety of our personnel is of the utmost importance and we are committed to providing a safe working environment. This includes removing or replacing items containing asbestos where practicable, and ensuring people have the right information about potential exposure.”

The HSE advises that asbestos is a risk only if it is disturbed or damaged and fibres are released into the air. But campaigners and unions say the substance is often poorly managed, especially in ageing public buildings, and staff are frequently ignorant as to where it is.

Adrian Budgen, a partner and specialist asbestos-related disease lawyer at the law firm Irwin Mitchell, said Goldie’s letter made for disturbing reading. “My colleagues and I have seen the devastating consequences of asbestos exposure and the admission of widespread failings in relation to the management of asbestos is truly alarming,” he said.

Budgen asked why it had taken the discovery of asbestos in Sea King helicopters to prompt a wider investigation, when the duty to manage the carcinogen is enshrined in law. “I and many others suspected this would go way beyond helicopters in 2018 because there is a significant unresolved asbestos problem in this country,” he said.

“This latest asbestos scandal tells us no one, not even the MoD, is immune from the terrible legacy of asbestos.”