Double asbestos lapse proves costly


It is often the case with construction safety issues that come to light in the press, that a contractor fails to take the right advice or does not follow the accepted codes of practice.

This however is an incident involving asbestos removal where qualified advice was sought in the approved manner. Yet it still went wrong, initially because the expert made a mistake. Just as with any building survey, what is hidden can sometimes be missed. That however is no defence in the eyes of the HSE or the courts.

A hospital ward in Northamptonshire was being refurbished, and the contractors, Simons Construction Ltd., engaged specialist firm Rilmac Insulation Ltd to carry out an asbestos survey before the work began.

Surveyor’s error

The surveyor who attended was fully-qualified. He identified the presence of asbestos on the underside of the plasterboard ceiling, which did not require licensed contractors to remove it. However he failed to identify the layer of asbestos insulation board (AIB) above the plasterboard, which did need specialist handling.

This AIB was quite extensive, covering more than 200 square metres in area above the Martin Roth ward at St Mary’s Hospital,Kettering.

This was an expensive mistake, which at Northampton Magistrates’ Court has cost Rilmac Insulation Ltd a fine of £3,500 and costs of £2,911.

Contractor also culpable

Following the faulty survey, two workers who were contracted to Simons were instructed on 17 December 2009 to knock holes in the ceilings. Crucially however, they were not told it contained asbestos: and they disturbed both layers.

The identified failings in this case were:

  • Masks were worn but were not of the correct type
  • The workers were not wearing protective overalls
  • They had not been trained to recognise asbestos-containing materials
  • They did not know how to work safely with them
  • Consequently, they were not working in such a way that would minimise and contain the release of fibres

The result was that asbestos materials landed on clothes which they then wore for the remainder of the day, thus increasing their contamination risk.

They also unknowingly increased their personal risk by sweeping up the debris and leaving it in a pile on the floor.
This problem only came to light when a company that was contracted to remove the ceilings arrived at the ward in the following month (January 2010) and its operatives recognised the dangerous material.

It was only then that a properly licensed asbestos removal company then removed the offending ceilings, which took some weeks to complete safely.

Original contractor Simons was held liable by the HSE inspectors who visited as a result: although the survey showed only the presence of asbestos that did not require specialists, the work was then carried out without a safe system of work. The operation was not properly supervised and the sub-contractors were not correctly briefed.

One can see that if experienced health and safety consultants had been engaged, these issues could have been averted and a lot of cost, management time and reputational damage would not have been suffered, not to mention the risk to the workers themselves.

Simons Construction Ltd received a fine of £5,000 plus HSE prosecution costs of £2,911.

It must be remembered that asbestos is the biggest cause of work-related deaths in theUK, and approximately 4,500 people die annually from asbestos-related disease. This is why such stress is laid on its proper handling and explains how vital it is that a competent and professional consultancy such as McCormack Benson Health & Safety must be brought in to oversee surveys and ensure that risk assessments and safe systems of working are employed, as well as providing training for employees.