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

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 awareness 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.

The school spent £111,500 including £20,000 which was not covered by insurance on a licensed clean up and to replace items.

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.