Tackling the threat of asbestos in ports

asbestos handling
Removing asbestos. Credit: Socotec
Denis Morgan
Denis Morgan, technical and training manager, SOCOTEC Asbestos

Ports need to ensure that asbestos is on the radar when planning port development projects, says Denis Morgan, technical and training manager for SOCOTEC Asbestos

With asbestos commonly used in building materials until the late 1970s, there is a strong likelihood that asbestos can still be found in a number of structures, buildings, industrial facilities around ports and harbours, among other places. But understanding the extent of asbestos risk in ports and harbours is difficult. Due to the sampling techniques currently used to explore where asbestos containing materials may be hidden, determining the exact location and scale of the problem is a challenge. Each port and harbour is different, with its own history to determine its present situation.

The ports and docks of Great Britain have always been an important entry point for the materials and products that helped to build the country. As so many ports and harbours were constructed prior to the 1970s, asbestos will likely be found in concrete posts, concrete ballasts, sprayed protective coatings, ropes, panels and deck underlay – to name but a few examples.

Before the dangers of asbestos were fully understood, even the control of raw asbestos fibres was inadequate. Since 1940, docks and ports saw the import of over 5,000,000 tonnes of raw asbestos fibre into the country. Some rumours allegedly report dockworkers having snowball fights with raw wet asbestos, which lends itself to even further question about how far the risk of asbestos fibres have spread. Land surrounding the ports has the potential to be contaminated as a result but it is only usually the reuse or development of that land that leads to the identification of asbestos in the soil itself.

Duty to manage

As non-commercial premises, ports and harbours fall under the Control of Asbestos Regulations (CAR) 2012, which determines that those responsible for the maintenance of the ports and harbours have a duty to manage any potential asbestos risks. This means that those responsible for the upkeep of ports and harbours must understand whether asbestos is present and if so, its location.

The appointment of an asbestos consultancy to conduct the appropriate and required asbestos survey - typically a management survey – will enable the port to identify where asbestos is present, assess the associated risks and produce a plan to manage those risks.

A common misconception is that all asbestos found in buildings or structures needs removing. However, that is not the case. Often it is more dangerous to remove the materials than it is to manage them in situ, with the HSE guidance stating that asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) in good condition, that are unlikely to be disturbed, should be managed and not removed.

Development and construction risks

Beyond day-to-day management, activities such as port construction, harbour development, quay wall remediation and pier extensions all tend to affect the existing structures – and soils – which requires asbestos awareness and proactive asbestos management. Knowing that asbestos is present may require rethinking of refurbishment plans or, at the very least, making contractors aware of the location to mitigate the risk of disturbance by avoiding contact.

Any demolition, refurbishment or structural changes within ports and harbours will require an appropriate survey to locate ‘hidden’ asbestos-containing materials, which could be disturbed by the planned project. Asbestos in cement is just one example of how, in situ, it can be managed but remediation or disturbance can cause an increased risk of asbestos exposure. The asbestos would have been mixed into cement products to increase their strength, which is why asbestos cement products are only likely to release fibres if the product is broken or damaged.

Putting this into a real life example, SOCOTEC has used concrete coring to sample and analyse a concrete structure. Using concrete coring, samples were carried out at over 100 points, surprisingly showing that approximately five per cent of the samples contained amosite. Subsequently, a single 170 square metre area and nine smaller areas were excavated under fully controlled conditions, which revealed the presence of asbestos sprayed coating in over 95 per cent of the samples. Preventing cross-contamination during the investigation was essential to ensure the sample results were accurate and the correct removal method selected.

Asbestos in soil

Elaborating on the earlier point that ports and harbours were an entry into the UK, with materials containing asbestos – including raw asbestos – being handled on the ports themselves, there is also potential for asbestos to be present in the soils. Most instances of asbestos in soil are caused by activities such as production processes, manufacturing, demolition and illegal tipping, where items that incorporate ACMs can contaminate the soil. For example, fragments of asbestos cement roof tiles from harbour buildings or thermal insulation debris from ships can contribute to the presence of asbestos in soils.

Although not a new risk, recent years have seen a significant increase in focus on the potential for asbestos to be found in the ground and so-called asbestos-containing soils (ACSs) have attracted greater attention. If an affected site is considered for development, it would be necessary to consider whether asbestos can be left on-site or disposed of appropriately; how to protect end users of the site; and how to protect workers on site during construction.

Onboard ships

Asbestos is very likely to be present on ships; asbestos is a good insulator with fire-resistant properties, meaning asbestos pipe and boiler lagging was extremely important in the maritime industry because of the high pressures created by the engines and steam pipes. In hindsight, those who worked around pipes and boilers are likely to have been exposed to asbestos dust. Removal or repair of these items nowadays will require handling with extreme care and professional help from an asbestos consultancy.

Similarly, sprayed asbestos coatings were commonly used on steel beams to protect them from fire and degradation. Ship construction is just one example of where this dangerous asbestos application method will have been used and where the risk of asbestos exposure would have been extremely high. Due to the friability of a ship’s environment, the disturbance of the protective coatings could see fibres emitted and contaminating the surrounding areas – air, land or sea.

Since January 2011, new installation of materials which contain asbestos on ships has been prohibited, as part of the implementation of SOLAS II-1, Regulation 3-5. Ongoing asbestos inspections should be conducted on in-service ships, to detect and record the asbestos condition while evaluating the risk to health and safety.

Scrapping or overhauling ships can also pose significant risk to those working on, or in close proximity to, the ships. In 2013, the EU introduced a directive in which all EU ships should have an Inventory of Hazardous Materials (IHM) by 2018, which can assist in scrapping, recycling, removing and disposing of all materials that make up the ship.

Asbestos is still mined in many countries. In 2017, an estimated 900,000 metric tonnes of asbestos were produced in Russia and China alone. Although ‘asbestos-free’ declarations can be made for products being imported from overseas, there are numerous variations of what ‘asbestos-free’ can mean.

While the US permits 1.0% asbestos content, the EU only permits 0.1%; in Australia, it is zero tolerance at 0%. Without testing to prove it, declarations rely on transparency and accuracy throughout the supply chain – and increased vigilance of all fleet management companies procuring materials, as well as those responsible for maintenance, replacement and refurbishment on board.

There are so many different potential locations of asbestos, including harbour walls and buildings, concrete ballasts and ropes, in the soil and surrounding land as well as on the ships and fleets. It goes beyond just one industry, penetrating any number of hidden applications. Understanding the risks and being aware of asbestos can help to mitigate risks and ensure effective management, as well as ensure you are meeting your obligatory duty to manage under CAR 2012.

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