The London Borough of Waltham Forest was fined last Friday at Southwark Crown Court following their pleading guilty to two Charges under the Health and safety at Work Act 1974 section 2(1) and section 3(1), namely failure to protect their employees and failure to protect the public with a further two charges specifically relating to the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006 and 2012 Regulation 4(8) which relate to the failure to manage asbestos in the Town Hall basement.
Waltham Forest Council had already been subject to improvement notices from the HSE surrounding the lack of asbestos management plans in local schools under its control in 2010 and had also been made aware of specific problems relating to asbestos in the Town Hall basement in a survey carried out in 2002.
The case was prosecuted by the Health and Safety Executive who told the court that the number of people potentially exposed to the asbestos in the Town Hall basement could not be estimated. They reported that there were thick layers of dust that contained all three types of asbestos (commonly known as white, brown and blue asbestos) found on surfaces and behind skirting boards in the basement.
Evidence showed that the Council had taken no action in managing the asbestos since the 2002 survey.
In her judgement, Judge Deborah Taylor referred to the Council’s failure to maintain an asbestos register, the absence of an asbestos management plan and the failure to warn employees of the potential risks. She went on to say that the Council’s failings had resulted in serious risk to the health of employees and contractors.
She found that the asbestos dust must have been airborne at times and the lack of action meant that the risk of exposure was allowed to continue from 2002 to 2012.
She took into account that the defendant is a local authority and that ultimately it is the residents of the borough that pay the costs associated with the case and she acknowledged the severe financial pressures placed on the local authority and the impact that a heavier fine would place on services in Waltham Forest. However, she also stated that this is no excuse for the level of failings.
The local authority was fined £66,000 for the breaches of Health and Safety legislation and the failure to manage asbestos and was ordered to pay the costs of the HSE which amounted to £16,832.30p. The judge added that if London Borough of Waltham Forest was a private company the fine would have been over a £100,000. She also took into account the cost of remedial works which the Council stated as being over £300,000 as mitigation.
UNISON Health and Safety Officer, Bill Palmer said, “If this work had been carried out in 2002 the cost would have been substantially lower to the authority and the council tax payer and should in our view not be seen as mitigation but only as the necessary expense of protecting their employees and contractors, which they were obliged to undertake under the control of asbestos regulations and more importantly as recommended by their own asbestos surveys”.
UNISON Branch Officer, Dave Knight said, “Given the seriousness of the potential health risks to employees and contractors, this is a paltry fine, but we recognise that any payment will have to come from the public purse. This is a matter of criminal negligence on the part of the Council as an employer and there should be some real accountability when serious, life threatening breaches of health and safety legislation occur. We therefore call on Waltham Forest Council to launch a full inquiry into all the circumstances that have led to this prosecution. The Leader of the Council and the Chief Executive hold the ultimate responsibility for these failings and it is clear that under their leadership the council has failed to provide a safe working environment. We therefore call on them to resign following this shameful episode.”
UNISON also calls on the Council to involve trade union health and safety reps in the management of asbestos. “The unions here have been on at the Council about asbestos management for as long as I can remember” commented Bill Palmer, UNISON Branch Health and Safety Officer, “and if they had listened to the unions then all of this could have been avoided”.
Bill Palmer added that, “The Council should also prepare a list of all those people that can be identified who may have been exposed to asbestos in the Town Hall. They should write to those people to inform them of the potential exposure risk”.
UNISON advises all employees and contractors who have visited the Town Hall basement from 2002 to 2012 to report their potential exposure to asbestos to the local authority and to their trade union.
“Asbestos is the country’s biggest industrial killer, claiming the lives of thousands of people every year, all of which is predictable and preventable. It is in most of our public buildings, schools, hospitals and homes and it is the legally required role of all employers, including the London Borough of Waltham Forest, to make sure that this deadly substance is properly controlled, managed and monitored to protect workers, contractors and members of the public. We must all learn from this lesson and we call on government to legislate now so a plan of action to safely remove and dispose of all asbestos by 2030 or we will inevitably see cases like this again and again in the courts.”
“We believe this is not a lone case and that there is an endemic failure of employers to manage asbestos properly. With the massive cut backs at the HSE and reduction of their enforcement regime the only cases that are being investigated is when something goes obviously wrong, such as in this case. We need action now with a plan to safely remove all asbestos in the coming years to protect workers and especially children in our asbestos ridden schools.”
“Our members will be living with the consequences of asbestos exposure for the rest of their lives and the London Borough of Waltham Forest must acknowledge this sorry state of affairs and create a central register of workers who were exposed to these deadly fibres.” Said Bill Palmer UNISON’s Health and Safety Officer.
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