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Asbestos risk to the British Armed Forces

Asbestos is a mineral fibre with heat resistant properties which were exploited extensively in the industrialisation of the 20th century.   

The risk to health of inhaling asbestos fibres was known as far back as the 1890s, but moves to control its use and protect those exposed to it were slow with regulations gradually being introduced over several decades.  It's now accepted that there is no safe level of contact with asbestos and its use is mostly banned across the world.

Sadly, military personnel and civilian employees of the Ministry of Defence were exposed to asbestos in large quantities across all the services – in the Royal Navy commonly in engine and boiler rooms from lagged pipework, in the Army throughout its bases in buildings containing asbestos as well as vehicles and weaponry, and Royal Airforce on aircraft and buildings, such as hangars.

Asbestos illnesses often take many years for symptoms to develop and therefore the legacy of this historic exposure continues to this day.

Even more concerning is the knowledge that although the use of asbestos has been banned since the 1990s, many buildings containing asbestos are still in use and are in a poor state of repair.  Some vehicles, aircraft and naval vessels also continue to contain asbestos.  Worryingly this means that service personnel are still being exposed to asbestos fibres.

In September 2022 a report into Defence equipment containing asbestos identified 37 significant pieces of equipment (called ‘platforms’) which still use asbestos.  These include:

  • Hawk T1 jet (as used by Red Arrows)
  • Trafalgar and Vanguard Class submarines (our current nuclear deterrent submarines)
  • Challenger 2 Main Battle Tank
  • Chinook helicopters
  • All Type 23 frigates (including the harpoon missiles they use) – 12 frigates in total each with a crew of 185.

The concerning feature of these ‘platforms’ is that some of the list i.e. Puma helicopters, are very old which means the asbestos is also likely to have degraded increasing the risk of exposure to fibres by those using them.

Another example of this risk has been found on Sea King helicopters. - 

The Ministry of Defence (MOD) is no different to a civilian employer has and has a duty of care to protect its employees from harm at the workplace.   However we believe the ‘hidden’ risk of ongoing exposure to asbestos is not adequately managed by the MOD.   More evidence of this is contained in the Service Inquiry into the exposure of UK Defence Personnel to asbestos during overseas exercise and training since 2018 released in August 2022.

The inquiry mentioned personnel taking part in overseas training in countries, particularly the Baltic States which still contain former Soviet military buildings where asbestos was found in large quantities. It also looked into the planning of these exercises and adequacy of risk assessments and pre-operation planning. It also highlighted a failure to provide safety briefs/training to those on the exercises. 

The service inquiry made 13 recommendations of changes to procedure and updates to internal MOD regulations to allow for identification, reporting and handling of the risk of asbestos when undertaking training operations abroad.

Those working within the military carry a similar ongoing risk of exposure to asbestos as those in civilian industries.  The MOD must improve its identification and management of the ongoing risks to its workforce including raising awareness of the likely presence of asbestos.  

Irwin Mitchell has lawyers who specialise in acting on behalf of injured service personnel as well as the largest team of asbestos disease lawyers in the UK.  Further information can be found at the dedicated section on our website