Unite, the UK’s largest union, has accused the Ministry of Defence of shamelessly hiding behind ‘commercial interests’ in refusing to provide information about the asbestos scandal involving the maintenance of its Sea King helicopter fleet.

Unite has been campaigning for the past year for the Ministry of Defence to contact the estimated 1,000 workers who undertook maintenance on Sea King helicopters since 1969. This follows the discovery that many of the components in the helicopter contained asbestos. Some of those components remained part of the aircraft even after a modification programme in 2006.

MoD shocking failure

In a shocking security failure the MoD has been forced to admit that it does not have a central record of the workers who had undertaken the maintenance work. Much of the work was undertaken by contractors rather than by MoD staff.

In February Unite national officer Jim Kennedy wrote to the MoD seeking information on what the MoD was doing to contact the workers and strongly urging the ministry to do more. Despite the request not being made under Freedom of Information (FoI) Act, the MoD decided to treat it as an FoI.

'Commercial interests'

The MoD then delayed answering Unite’s letter citing its concern that in doing so it would potentially affect ‘commercial interests’ and therefore it may not disclose the information, under legal exemptions contained in the FoI Act. The MoD will now not reply before the end of the month, two months after the questions were first asked.

Unite has highlighted the MoD’s failure to inform workers that they could have been exposed to asbestos in the run up to International Workers’ Memorial Day (IWMD) on Sunday 28 April, as the theme for this year’s event is dangerous substances – get them out of the workplace.

Absolute scandal

Unite national officer Jim Kennedy said: “This is an absolute scandal. Not only has the MoD allowed workers to be exposed to asbestos for nearly 50 years, it is now trying to cover up their failings, citing ‘commercial interests’.

“The MoD is more interested in covering up its failings then ensuring that workers who may have been exposed to asbestos are notified about their contamination.

“Workers could have been handed a death sentence by the MoD and it is not even prepared to warn them of what has occurred.

“It is simply not credible to believe that the MoD does not have records of the workers who operated on military bases.

“If government ministers had an ounce of decency they would step in and ensure that all the affected workers were properly notified about their contamination.”

Every year over 2,500 people die of mesothelioma the incurable cancer of the lining of the lung caused by breathing in asbestos fibres.

Unite three point plan

Unite has called on the MoD to introduce a three point plan:

  • The MoD must introduce systems, as a matter of urgency, to identify all current employees who may have been exposed to asbestos
  • The MoD must offer follow up counselling or access to medical checks for current and former employees
  • The MoD must introduce a system that will notify all former MoD employees of the risk they now face due to previous unknown exposure to asbestos while working on the Sea King.


Notes to editors:

Unite renews pressure over asbestos exposure of Sea King helicopter repair staff

For more information please contact Unite communications officer Barckley Sumner on 020 3371 2067 or 07802 329235. Email: [email protected]

  • Unite is Britain and Ireland’s largest union with members working across all sectors of the economy. The general secretary is Len McCluskey.