Council chiefs have admitted exposing a 19-year-old college apprentice to asbestos during work on an old school building.
Student Keith Woodhall was on placement in the mechanical department at Hartlepool Borough Council and had been assigned to work on the former Brierton School site – part of which was refurbished to create a unit for challenging pupils, and the rest demolished.
While he was on the site, in January last year, he was told by an engineer to start work on heating system pipework in a room which had been formerly used as a tool store.
Magistrates heard that, as Mr Woodhall peeled back the lagging, the top layer was fibre glass but underneath was a fine layer of a white-coloured material called asbestos paper.
It wasn’t until four weeks after the apprentice had carried out the work that bosses realised the mistake. No checks for asbestos had been carried out and Mr Woodhall had been exposed to the toxic substance.
The matter was reported to the Health and Safety Executive which charged the council with two counts of contravening a health and safety regulation.
The matter should never have happened but with regret, it didPeter Devlin, mitigating on behalf Hartlepool Borough Council
The case was heard at Hartlepool Magistrates’ Court, where representatives of the council, including chief executive Dave Stubbs, attended.
The authority admitted the two charges, which happened between January 6 and 10 last year, and was fined £1,100, ordered to pay £1,052, and a victim surcharge of £110 –a total court bill of £2,262.
Prosecuting Martin Smith said: “Asbestos was a common building material when schools like Brierton were built in the 40s, 50s and 60s. It is essential that people carrying out work know exactly what they are dealing with.
“The person carrying out this work was an apprentice, Keith Woodhall, who was 19.
“While he was on this site, he was under the charge of the site manager. The mechanical department was designing modifications to the heating system and an engineer came to the site and gave Mr Woodhall the task of modifying some pipework in room eight of the school.
“In doing so he disturbed the lagging on the pipework, the bottom layer of which was a material called asbestos paper.
“Anyone who needed to know about this, didn’t know about it until four weeks after Mr Woodhall had worked on it.”
He added: “This exposed Mr Woodhall to the fibres being released to the air and he will have inhaled, possibly not many, but some of these fibres.”
“Proper procedures had been bypassed. Asbestos paper is the lower end of the risk register and doesn’t require a contractor to remove it but people must be trained to deal with asbestos. The room must be sealed, masks must be worn, and cleaning must take place with a specialist vacuum.
“Unfortunately Mr Woodhall was not trained to work with asbestos and precautions were not taken.”
It is not known whether Mr Woodhall will suffer any effects from the asbestos exposure in the future.
Mitigating, Peter Devlin told the court that as soon as the local authority became aware of the matters it immediately admitted it was at fault.
The store room had not been checked for asbestos during a previous survey as it was unaccessible at that time - and despite regulations ruling that checks should be carried out first, Mr Woodhall was still ordered to carry out the work.
Mr Devlin said: “.The matter should never have happened but unfortunately, and with regret, it did.”
Chief Executive’s statement
Dave Stubbs, Hartlepool Council’s Chief Executive – who attended the court case - apologised for the incident.
He said: “The safety and wellbeing of our staff is paramount and so we are extremely upset and sorry that this incident occurred.
“When the presence of the asbestos paper was discovered behind the lagging on the pipe, we immediately called in specialists to remove the paper and clean the area.
“We also co-operated fully with the Health and Safety Executive in its investigation and gave it full details of the incident.
“The Council fully accepts that it should have identified the presence of the asbestos paper under the pipe lagging before the work started. “