A visit to HMS Belfast

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On September 13th I wrote a post about the asbestos lagging that is still present in the old warship HMS Belfast, which is now a tourist attraction moored on the Thames in Central London. Yesterday, I had the opportunity to visit the Belfast.

In my earlier blog post I wondered whether visitors were warned about the presence of asbestos before buying their tickets to go on board. I couldn’t see any warning notices in the ticket office. However, once on board there is a detailed notice concerning the various potential hazards of the ship, including a section on the asbestos. It is the type of notice that in reality few tourists are likely to take the time to read.

The ship contains huge quantities of asbestos lagging, and unless you stay on the outside deck during your visit it is impossible not to be within a few inches of it throughout your time on the ship.

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Whether it is ‘safe’ I suppose depends upon your perspective of asbestos. Obviously, the licensing body responsible considers it ‘safe’, with the asbestos being encased in some sort of fabric and then painted over. As tourists move about the ship there are sections of the vessel where the walkways are so narrow it is almost impossible not to come into contact with the lagging.

Undoubtedly, it would be argued that with the precautions taken to encase it, it is safe and therefore there is no need for the asbestos to be stripped out. The cost of such an operation would be substantial, and of course who would foot the bill other than the Imperial War Museum. It is a dilemma, as without question this is a marvellous ship with a huge history, and the presentation of its history on board is excellent, as are the wonderful group of volunteers who work on the ship.

In my earlier post I mentioned the implication of the ship’s asbestos legacy, and whilst it is a fantastic tourist attraction, for me the asbestos remains an ever present dark cloud. Highlighting this asbestos legacy, I actually spotted whilst on board a couple of young asbestos stripping workers, who were working in an area around the main funnel. As I walked below this raised area I saw one of them putting waste material (it didn’t look like asbestos itself) into a special transparent asbestos plastic sack which had on it printed warning notices. The only form of protective clothing the guy had on were a pair of eye goggles and gloves. No overalls, no respirator. I assumed they had just finished the job they were doing and were clearing up any general non asbestos waste material, and that the asbestos plastic sacks were all they had available to put the waste in. But then I saw the guy using sticky tape to seal the transparent bag; a clear sign that whatever waste it was must have been contaminated with asbestos fibres. If what I witnessed was an unauthorsised practice, it raises the further matter of why such work was being carried out when the vessel was open to tourists?

From my personal perspective, whilst the ship is an historic treasure, the asbestos is not, and it is folly to allow anyone anywhere near what might be claimed to be a ‘safe’ environment, but in reality remains a deadly potential hazard where exposure can occur by a simple accident or inadvertence, or by poor working practices.

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