The time is up for the owners of any ships calling at EU ports or anchorages to arrange surveys, required by the EU Ship Recycling Regulation, to identify if hazardous materials including asbestos, are present on board. Will such surveys lead to an unwelcome and unexpected surprise with asbestos estimated to be present on a significant number of ships? Can owners be confident of relying on certification that the vessel is “asbestos free” when built? The answer for some owners may unfortunately be no.
Over the years, the IMO have increased their restrictions on the permissible levels of asbestos contained on new build vessels using the framework of SOLAS. Since 1 January 2011, the presence of any asbestos at all in new build vessels has been prohibited.
This is because of the risks of asbestos to human health which have been well recognised for some time. Asbestos is an effective insulation material (as well as being fire resistant) and was traditionally used for that purpose on ships. However, it poses a risk when released into the atmosphere. The on-board environment of a ship’s pitching and rolling, as well as the vibrations of the engine, can encourage the release of dangerous asbestos fibres which can then be inhaled by crew and visitors on board. In-service repairs and modifications can also give rise to the same risk. Therefore, although much recent regulation has focussed on the risks arising at the time of ship recycling, asbestos on board can also pose a risk to health during the operation of the vessel. It can also expose shipowners to potential personal injury claims by visitors and crew members as well as imposing additional costs and operational constraints.
The detection of hazardous materials on board commercial ships is addressed in the Hong Kong International Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships (the Convention). The Convention, adopted in 2009 but not yet in force, will require all new commercial vessels over 500GT to carry an Inventory of Hazardous Materials (IHM) listing all hazardous materials on board the vessel, their amounts and their locations.
Although some states, notably Australia and the Netherlands, require an independent approved surveyor to confirm the absence of asbestos before a ship can be entered with their flag, the majority have no such requirement. Therefore, as the Convention is not yet in force, there is limited practical regulation of the problem. An owner may have a ship that contains large quantities of asbestos but have no idea about this.