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Is your ship final free of asbestos?

Shiprepair & Maintenance: April 2018Asbestos on ships

The IMO’s Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Convention introduced the first major ban on asbestos for ships built before 1 July 2002. It prohibited the new installation of asbestos containing material on all ships, except for:

  • vanes used in rotary vane compressors and rotary vane vacuum pumps
  • watertight joints and linings used for the circulation of fluids when, at high temperature
  • (in excess of 350o C) or pressure (in excess of 0.7 x 106 Pa), there is a risk of fire, corrosion or toxicity, and
  • supple and flexible thermal insulation assemblies used for temperatures above 1,000o C

Ships built before the 2002 deadline which contain asbestos must have a hazardous materials’ register and management plan to cover any maintenance or repair work involving asbestos. If asbestos was found onboard a ship built after the July 2002 deadline the vessels flag registry in conjunction with its classification society can issue a non-extendable exemption certificate, providing the own a three year period in which to remove the asbestos.


From the 1st of January 2011, under SOLAS Ch. II-1,Regulation 3.5.2, any installation of materials that contain asbestos was prohibited, for all ships without exceptions.  Normally, a shipbuilder would issue an ‘asbestos free’ declaration and provides supporting documents to the classification society, which makes a notation to that effect on the operating certificate.

John Chillingworth, senior principal at Lucion Marine believes Asbestos on ships 2that current system is failing and IMO need to ament the SOLAS regulation to truly eliminate asbestos onboard ships, claiming that 80% of existing and new ships contain asbestos in their systems.  He believes that amount of asbestos found onboard depends on several factors, including where the ship was built. In his experience, ships built in the Far East and Turkey have a high percentage of items containing asbestos. Ships can also be contaminated through items brought onboard by the owners, despite assurances that they are asbestos free.


The term ‘asbestos free’ can be a misleading one, due to the different international standards that constitute exactly what it means. In the USA, for instance, it is up to a 1.0% content, while in the EU it is 0.1% and 0% in Australia. In the Far East, China has no official standard - indeed, we have found as much as 15% asbestos in materials that have been declared free in China. The problem is compounded by the fact that there is no testing and certification of materials by manufacturers.


Some flag state authorities such as Australia and the Netherlands, are aware that these ‘asbestos-free’ declarations can be inaccurate, and insist that a ship registered under their flag has a verification asbestos survey performed by a marine specialist ISO17020 accredited company and that any asbestos found is removed before the ship can be registered.


Although asbestos is now banned in it’s still legal to use it in many counties including China.  A manufacturer may set up a production line to supply ‘asbestos free’ materials, but could be unaware of the potential for   cross contamination from other product items containing asbestos also being produced in their factory.


Mr Chillingworth believes that, “ IMO would be justified in Ship asbestos survey Lucionmodifying the SOLAS requirement for asbestos in ships and institute a more manageable procedure that would contribute to securing the safety of seafarers. This modification would also spur owners into actioning the Inventory of Hazardous Materials (IHM) inspections now rather than leaving it to the last minute. It really is matter of urgency therefore, that the following principles are adopted by the EU and Hong Kong Convention as an approved amended regulation:

  • All new ships must have an accredited asbestos survey
  • All existing ships must have an asbestos survey, performed by an accredited marine specialist ISO17020 survey company this can be part of an approved IHM survey 
  • If asbestos is found then an asbestos management plan should be established. All high-risk asbestos should be removed within three years. Low risk asbestos items should be encapsulated and replaced when maintenance requirements allow and condition monitoring should be recorded”.

Asbestos is actually the generic name given to the fibrous variety of six naturally occurring silicate minerals. The most commonly recognised types of asbestos are blue, brown and white. Their common names relate to their natural colour and have nothing to do with how they appear in products.


When asbestos is disturbed it produces airborne fibres or dust. If this is inhaled or swallowed the fibres penetrate the lungs and abdomen and lodge themselves in the mesothelium, which is the tissue lining that protects the body's major internal organs. These asbestos fibres cause irritation which can leads to the development of mesothelioma cancer.


The use of asbestos in shipbuilding peaked between 1940 and 1980. It was used mainly because of its heat resistance property and to provide electrical insulation. The use of asbestos in shipbuilding industry over these years was unusually high and included a disproportionately large amount of blue and brown asbestos, which are seen as the worst types. The Shipbuilding industry also often applied the asbestos using spraying methods, which can be particularly dangerous because means that the asbestos is more likely to crumble or break following compression increasing the probability of fibre’s being emitted. Ship motion and vibrations increase the possibility of damage to the asbestos and the likely emission of fibres. Asbestos could be found virtually everywhere on a ship but typically it would be found in places like:

  • the concrete and tiling on the floor
  • the wall and ceiling panels and the fire insulation behind them
  • the doors
  • the glues and sealants in the windows and furniture
  • heat insulation and lagging
  • electrical cables
  • brake linings and gaskets Pipes and cables. These could contain asbestos but if maintained in good condition they will be safe.
  • mooring ropes
  • firemen’s outfits
  • boiler cladding
  • furnace firebricks, and
  • welding shop curtains and welders gloves.