Waltham Forest borough council has been fined after it exposed members of staff and visiting contractors to the potentially lethal dangers of asbestos, which it knew to be present in the town hall basement.
The hazardous material was identified in a survey commissioned by the council in 2002, yet it failed to take adequate action to act on the findings and put effective controls in place. As a result, employees and visiting contractors were allowed to carry on working in the basement for the next ten years, regardless of the dangers posed to health.
Westminster Magistrates heard on 30 March, 2015 that the issue only became public by chance in mid-2012 when a local resident put in a request to the council to see some election expenses documentation. The authority denied the request with the reason that the paperwork was contaminated with asbestos.
The resident subsequently approached the Health & Safety Executive’s (HSE) ‘Mythbuster Challenge Panel’, which in turn referred the concern to HSE inspectors in north east London to investigate further.
HSE found that the council had a second asbestos survey carried out in January 2012. This had quickly identified problems of asbestos in the boiler room and other areas of the basement. The survey also highlighted that areas identified in the 2002 survey had not been remedied.
The court heard that Waltham Forest had no plan in place for managing the well-known risks of asbestos and there was an inadequate system in place for inspecting asbestos at the town hall.
HSE served an Improvement Notice on the council requiring them to put in place a proper management plan dealing with the presence of asbestos. Inspectors also interviewed a number of employees and contractors who had used the basement over the years, including print-room staff based there.
Waltham Forest Borough Council was fined a total of £66,000 and ordered to pay £16,862 in costs after pleading guilty to two breaches of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 and a breach of the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006.
HSE inspector Chris Tilley said: “Waltham Forest was aware of the asbestos in the basement as far back as 1984. It was also aware of the risks from asbestos exposure and of its duty to manage those risks. However, the authority singularly failed to do so over more than a decade. Over that period an unquantifiable number of its own employees, plus workers from maintenance companies and similar, were regularly exposed to these hazards.
“Asbestos-related disease has a long latency and it is impossible to ascertain what injury may have been caused in this case. But asbestos is a known and powerful carcinogen and owners or managers of non-domestic premises, such as councils, have a legal duty to manage the material in their buildings and have measures and controls in place to protect workers and the public from being exposed.”