Bury St Edmunds company fined £24,000 over asbestos exposure at school

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A Bury St Edmunds window replacement company has been fined £24,000 after exposing employees to asbestos during work to replace windows at a school.

Frames Conservatories Direct Ltd was told the window units at Westley Middle School contained asbestos panels in January 2012 and started removing and replacing them in the summer holidays despite not being licensed to work with asbestos, Bury Magistrates’ Court heard.

The company, based at Barton Retail Park, also failed to inform employees the panels contained asbestos, had not provided asbestos prevention training and did not use any control measures to prevent the spread of fibres.

The company admitted two counts of breaching health and safety regulations between July 30 and August 13 2012.

Elizabeth Fowle, prosecuting for the Health and Safety Executive, said concerns were first raised when another contractor, brought in to work on a radiator, discovered debris in a floor duct they believed to be asbestos. A licensed asbestos contractor then visited the school and advised the Frames employees to stop work and leave the area.

A clean up and replacement of items at the school cost £111,500 with Frames’ insurance company covering just under £100,000. Frames made up the shortfall of about £20,000 through additional work at the school including a new conservatory.

Miss Fowle said, based on the quotation for the work, the school understood Frames would arrange for a registered contractor to remove and dispose of the panels. However the company intended to remove the panels itself and that a licensed firm would then dispose of them from Frames’ site.

“This failure to clearly communicate their intention to remove the panels themselves was a key factor in events that followed,” she said.

Miss Fowle added that due to the nature of asbestos related disease ‘employees exposed to asbestos fibres will have to wait decades before they know if their health has suffered’.

Julie Gowland, in mitigation, said the company had ‘fully accepted responsibility’, lessons had been learnt and it had undertaken a ‘complete overhaul’ of its health and safety policies.

She said: “They fully accept their knowledge on asbestos was insufficient. It was naivety on behalf of the company. They were so absolutely thrilled to have secured a tender for a local school and ultimately they were out of their depth.”

Miss Gowland told magistrates they were ‘not dealing with a cowboy outfit’ and there was no suggestion it had put profit before safety which the Health and Safety Executive agreed with.

She added: “The company now have in place a system for dealing with asbestos or any suspected asbestos incidents. They have a number of licensed companies that can deal with testing of samples. They’re now fully compliant in terms of the rules and regulations.”

Employees have also taken an asbestos awareness course and she noted that one of the employees involved said ‘despite the incident and risk to his health he will continue to work for the company for a long time’.

It had also taken on subsidised work at the school and offered to pay for the clean up.

Miss Gowland said there was ‘no intention to mislead the school’ and the company’s understanding was it would remove the panels and a licensed company would remove them from its site.

The company was fined £24,000 and ordered to pay £10,571 in costs.

After the hearing, Nick Templeton, head at Westley Middle, said: “They made a mistake and they very quickly held their hands up to making a mistake. They went out of their way to put everything right in the school and put things right in terms of their health and safety procedures. As a result of that we used them to continue the rest of the work.”

He added the school was cleared of contamination in the summer holidays before pupils returned.

In a statement, Adrian Lewis, managing director of Frames, said: “Firstly, we would like to publicly apologise to Westley Middle School for the incident and thank headteacher Mr Nick Templeton, the caretaker and other members of staff for the unwavering support they have shown us every step of the way.

“We would also like to thank the health and safety executives for carrying out an extremely professional and thorough investigation. We would also like to thank our own staff for their support throughout, especially the three members of staff that were directly involved. Dealing with asbestos, in particular the safe removal of it, is an extremely complex procedure.

“A lot can go wrong, and in this one instance, we were naive and we hold our hands up.

We managed to maintain an excellent working relationship with Westley Middle School and continue to work with them because we reacted quickly and professionally to the situation. We entered the project with Westley Middle School with excitement in the hope that we were going to provide the local community with a fabulous school renovation, we believe we have achieved that result.

“As mentioned by the court, we never cut any corners with this project for commercial gains.

“The local community have been exceptional in their support of Frames Conservatories Direct, and for that we are very grateful. We hope as a company to continue doing as much work as we can to support the community in particular our involvement with local sport, continuing to sponsor Bury Town Football Club and the Bury Rugby Club.

“Since the incident, as a company, we have learnt some valuable lessons and it has made the company stronger. We have spent a great deal of time and money ensuring our processes for safe asbestos removal is second to none.

In fact we have gone on to work with many local schools and commercial buildings - advising and removing asbestos where necessary. Lastly, we would just like to reassure you that the school and pupils were never effected in any way by the asbestos discovery and the school remained open at all times so pupils were not disrupted. And we hope the Westley Middle School is now benefitting from their new A-rated windows and doors and a new conservatory.”