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771 Naval Air Squadron Sea King prior to the disbandment of the RN SAR capability which was privatised in 2016. Photo via Save the Royal Navy

 

The MOD has apparently recently issued a warning to all personnel who maintained Sea King helicopters to be aware of the possible symptoms of exposure to asbestos. Asbestos was present in many components – sometimes on a very small scale. However, in the course of removing and servicing parts, the maintenance crews might have become exposed to the dust that is often created over time.

Asbestos was used in many applications when the helicopters were first fielded back in 1969. Vehicle-brakes, insulation, fireproofing, barn-roofs etc. often contained – or indeed were made of, asbestos. According to the NHS, asbestosis is a relatively rare condition, because it takes a considerable degree of asbestos exposure to cause it, and regulations to restrict exposure have been in place for many years.

However,  it has been reported that the current Sea King warning comes about after an Australian Petty Officer who maintained Sea Kings died of cancer after being exposed to asbestos. That having been said, there have been no reported direct links to his work on the helicopters to date.

Symptoms of asbestosis include:

  • Shortness of breath.
  • Tightness in your chest.
  • Persistent dry cough.
  • Chest pain.
  • Appetite loss.
  • Finger clubbing (enlarged fingertips)
  • Nail deformities.

According to the NHS website, www.nhsinform, “one of the most important things someone with the condition can do is to stop smoking if they smoke. This is because the symptoms are more likely to get worse in people who smoke, and smoking also increases the risk of lung cancer in people with asbestosis.”

About nine countries have used Sea Kings at some point and it is understood that the UK MOD has issued all of them with information about the asbestos. However, the Sea King is itself a license-built derivative of the Sikorsky S-61 which was operated by another fifteen countries. It is not known whether the Sikorski versions are similarly affected by asbestos.

Comments on MOD issue Sea King asbestos warning

There are 10 comments on MOD issue Sea King asbestos warning

  1. Comment by David Lang

    David Lang

    What follow-up or contact details are the MOD providing for ex service personnel for whom the MOD will not have updated details? There is clearly lots of publicity around this concern but lack of MOD contact information that someone like myself can follow up. Having spent 12 years in the Fleet Air Arm (1984 – 1996) approx of which over 7 years were spent on Sea King IV as and avionics / electrical technician (Artificer) it would be helpful if the MOD followed this up promptly which I believe they have failed to do to date?

  2. Comment by Dee

    Dee

    I don’t think that any of us, ex sea king maintenance personnel, have been notified by the MOD. The powers that be definitely have our latest addresses / contact details, at least those who are in receipt of pensions.
    Disgusting that we learn about this issue AFTER the national press have published!
    I like the way, though, that the MOD issue a dictat, that ex-service personnel are not to communicate with the press over this. They obviously underestimate the lower deck; we no longer touch our forelocks or salute. This is not the 1950’s!

  3. Comment by Mr Paul Curzon

    Mr Paul Curzon

    Paul C.
    I had to leave the RAF 5 Years ago and one of the contributing factors was Chest Problems, which had always been diagnosed as Asthma. I worked in HMF on the Sea Kings from March 1994 until Oct 1995 and did suffer at that time and since with these symptom’s.

    I have contacted the Veteran Association and they are unaware of this issue and from their response seem to be making no attempt to clarify it!

    Hope this helps.

    1. Comment by Andy

      Andy

      Symptoms related to asbestosis exposure take decades to appear. If you were suffering respiratory problems whilst working on them it almost certainy isn’t from the asbestos.

  4. Comment by Murray Hammick

    Murray Hammick

    Hi Paul,

    Did you mean that the Veterans Association UK are not helping, or were you in fact referring to the MOD ?

    We have tried to contact the VAUK and, to be frank, were surprised by the number of phone-lines that respond with “Number no longer in service”. The only line that worked for us went direct to voicemail.

    To be fair, there are many charities that work on shoestring budgets and which are staffed by volunteers – so we should not judge VAUK too harshly. However, it is of course going to be a major disappointment to anyone urgently in need of help and support to find that they cannot get through. This is a topic we touched on in the article about Veterans Gateway (see: >https://www.themilitarytimes.co.uk/veterans/veterans-gateway/).

    It is also a fact of life that some of the people who set up these charities are not necessarily the best people to manage them. The emotional response to a soldier, sailor or airman in need is to want to help. However, the fact is that do so involves a lot of painstaking, labour-intensive and often highly-skilled work over what might be a prolonged period.

    This is where the large charities such as SSAFA and the Legion come in to their own. They have been around for decades or more, and will be there as long as you and I need them. They might also have the resources within their overall organisation to bring more specialist support to bear. So we must acknowledge the wonderful intent of the smaller charities, but decide where best to send our hard-earned cash in order to preserve a long-term support infrastructure for Veterans in this country.

    We will keep trying to contact people to see if anyone has a handle on this problem.

    Ed.

  5. Comment by Bill Atkins

    Bill Atkins

    A minority, compared to the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, who worked in RN engine and boiler rooms.

  6. Comment by Murray Hammick

    Murray Hammick

    Which in turn opens up the whole question of merchant-seaman who worked (and some probably still do), in similar or worse conditions.

    The almost complete disregard some commercial ship-owners and operators had for crews on their ships going through pirate-infested waters off the Horn of Africa a few years ago was astonishing. At one point, it was estimated that about 70% of all ships transiting the area were not even insured as the owners were simply not bothered about retrieving their crews or ships, in the event of a hi-jacking. The state of many of these vessels was so awful that they were regarded as of no value whatsoever, certainly not worth the cost of insurance.

    Back to naval vessels, how many navies still operate ships with asbestos in them even now ? Many “first-world” countries sell off older vessels to other countries, who run them on for years or decades, long after an organisations such as the Royal Navy would consider them unfit for sea. Vessels built for the RN in the 1960’s are still operational – see the article: “Ex-Royal Navy vessels serving with other navies” posted on TMT on 2nd May 2018 for examples. What chance of them being asbestos free ?

    It all adds up to a huge potential “at-risk” population. But trying to take a “suspicion” to the next stage of proving a direct link between an individual’s exposure to asbestos and cancer, for example, is likely be a problem given the time that has elapsed since asbestos was last used in RN vessels.

    Ed.

  7. Comment by Gaz

    Gaz

    Plenty of speculation by people but no publicly available information from MOD as to which components this affects.

    I spent nearly 14 years on Sea King’s part of which was the MK2 to MK5 conversion programme where we made significant changes to the airframes and installed new avionics equipments, which could well have increased our exposure risk.

    MOD should at least publicly state which components are affected and provide advice but it seems as usual, their duty of care is woefully inadequate.

  8. Comment by Andrew Pickard

    Andrew Pickard

    I worked on the RAF SAR Sea kings for Babcock as a civvy from January 2008 to April 2016 and have not been directly contacted by them about this. It would be great to have an idea if I may have been exposed in any way. Should I be getting checked out?

  9. Comment by Murray Hammick

    Murray Hammick

    Andrew – you might be well advised to start by contacting Babcocks and asking them about their policy regarding this matter. This might be a key to getting things moving as it sometimes takes a commercial organisation to show up the deficiencies in the way the MOD handles such matters.

    However – at the very least, anyone who thinks they might have been exposed to asbestos should talk to their GP. They will then at least be on the radar as far as asbestos poisoning is concerned and if they do in fact develop any symptoms they will not be “ignored” as can so often happen.

    That having been said, the NHS makes the point that ill effects are typically the result of prolonged and/or severe exposure to fibres and dust. So it might be worth talking to Babcocks and to ask the question about the likely severity of any exposure to components containing asbestos and see what they come up with. If you do get any where with this please do get back to us with the results so we can pass the info on to others.

    Ed.

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