Firms fined after school asbestos scare

TWO building companies have been ordered to pay £75,000 in fines and legal costs after they exposed more than 600 children, teachers and other staff to potentially deadly asbestos.

TWO building companies have been ordered to pay £75,000 in fines and legal costs after they exposed more than 600 children, teachers and other staff to potentially deadly asbestos.

Recorder Patrick Moloney, QC, said the companies' health and safety breaches during refurbishment work at Stanway School, near Colchester, were “serious” – particularly as their employees worked on the dangerous substance while lessons continued around them.

At a sentencing hearing at Basildon Crown Court yesterday, Mr Recorder Moloney said the presence of brown asbestos in the 1960s Rutherford science block had been “manifest, but in practical terms, nothing was done”.

The court was told that London-based international construction giant, EC Harris Human Resources Ltd, and the family-run firm of sub-contractors, Clivnars Ltd, from Hertfordshire, had been offered more than £100,000 to replace windows and carry out other work at the Winstree Road school in March 2001.

EC Harris took overall responsibility supervising the project while Clivnars provided the workmen, the court heard.

Jonathan Ashley-Norman, prosecuting, said that prior to the work EC Harris was made aware of a previous survey in 1997 that revealed asbestos in other parts of the building.

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He said: “It's the Crown's case that a reasonably competent building surveyor such as EC Harris should have known that there was likely to be asbestos in the window as well – they should've been aware of the risks.

“Clivnars had responsibility to build upon the health and safety plan developed by EC Harris.

“But despite the risks of cancer and death, nobody seems to have turned their minds to the presence of asbestos at all.”

He said that in March 2001, two Clivnars workmen, John Bush and Dave Russell, removed panels in the block releasing asbestos fibres to 600-700 pupils and staff working in the building.

The potentially lethal substance was only discovered by a school laboratory technician who had gone to examine a lack of noise proofing as a result of the work on the final day of term, the court heard.

She reported her worries to the acting headmaster and the block was closed for six weeks.

A Health and Safety Executive investigation found fibres in the block and asbestos panels dumped in waste skips outside the building, Mr Ashley-Norman said.

Both companies, who pleaded guilty to a total of three charges, expressed “deep and genuine remorse”, the court heard.

Gerard Forlin, mitigating for EC Harris, said the risk from the asbestos had been negligible and it was “highly unlikely” anybody would contract a disease as a result.

He added: “Once we were aware we dealt with the issue. We didn't allow it to drift.

“We have learnt from the incident to ensure that this will never happen again.”

Mitigating for Clivnars, Adam Budworth, said: “This was dreadful mistake.”

Referring to the 1997 survey, of which EC Harris had been aware, Mr Budworth added: “We had been misled by EC Harris and were thrown off the scent. We were told of the presence of asbestos in the porch canopy, but nowhere else.”

Sentencing, Mr Recorder Moloney QC, said he accepted neither company had “cut corners and put people's health at risk for profit”, but the gravity of the offences had been increased as children and teaching staff had been working during term-time.

He said: “It's not necessary for there to be evidence to understand the substantial feelings of parents and children that continue to this day.

“This was a very serious offence which might have serious consequences for somebody.”

He fined EC Harris £17,500 for its one charge of failing to ensure the health and safety of the public and ordered the company to pay £26,417 costs.

Clivnars Ltd was fined £5,000 for failing to protect its employees and a further £10,000 for failing to protect the public. It was also ordered to pay £16,600 in costs.

Stanway School headmaster Jonathan Tippett said after the hearing he was pleased the judge had recognised the school had every reason to rely on a “reputable” company such as EC Harris.

He added: “My governors will now meet to decide what we do next in terms of recouping some of the costs for the original work.”

There was still some asbestos at the school, but “it's entirely safe”, he said.

A statement from EC Harris said it placed health and safety at the top of its agenda, while spokesmen for Clivnars Ltd declined to comment.

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