A court has heard how workers were exposed to dangerous asbestos fibres following a number of errors by an engineering company and a building firm during a demolition and refurbishment project in Swansea.

Neath Magistrates’ Court was told that the project was badly managed, with untrained staff put in charge of the operation, and was underpinned by inadequate surveys for the presence of asbestos and poor planning throughout.

It was detailed how Wall Colmonoy Ltd had contracted Oaktree Construction to renovate a building opposite its premises in December 2010 in order to expand its operations.

The engineering firm had two asbestos management surveys for the site, which, although later deemed to be inadequate, recognised the presence of asbestos material and highlighted other areas, such as the ceiling voids, which were presumed to contain asbestos.

Despite this however, work was allowed to commence in the building, even though Oaktree had been instructed by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) that a separate ‘Refurbishment and Demolition Survey’ was also needed before any activity was allowed to start.

Explaining why it is so important that organisations have this survey, Workplace Law’s Head of Health and Safety, Simon Toseland, said:

“It is absolutely critical that companies understand that if you are having any building work carried out, or work that will involve drilling into a wall, if you are not certain that there is no asbestos behind it then you need to have a Refurbishment and Demolition survey carried out.”

During the demolition works, an asbestos insulation board (AIB) covering a steel column was damaged, and a Wall Colmonoy employee was told to tape plastic bags around it.

Work continued in the building for several months with the AIB debris left lying on the floor until a HSE Inspector arrived unannounced.

A HSE investigation followed and found that Wall Colmonoy failed to appoint a competent Construction, Design and Management co-ordinator and principal contractor to plan and manage the construction work, and also ignored advice from its own health and safety manager to alert HSE of the demolition phase of the project, which is required by law.

It has been revealed that Wall Colmonoy also failed to provide a proper assessment of the presence of asbestos and its condition in the building before work started.

The Court heard that the surveys they held were poor, as a licensed asbestos removal contractor had warned in advising the company that the information they contained was insufficient.

Following the investigation, it was discovered that no-one involved in the management of the project had the skills, training or experience to handle health and safety issues, including the risk of asbestos exposure.

In addition to this, the company made no efforts to remove or control the risks from the asbestos materials that had been identified in the reports.

Commenting on why it is a necessity to have an asbestos management plan, Simon Toseland said:

“By law, where it has asbestos, every organisation needs to have an asbestos management plan.

“It needs to explain who is going to be responsible for communicating the asbestos plan, communicating the whereabouts of asbestos, making sure inspections and checks are undertaken and ensuring that emergency arrangements are set out should asbestos be disturbed.”

The HSE stated that its investigation also found that Oaktree failed to prevent the exposure of its employees to asbestos, and failed to control its spread once it had been damaged.

Furthermore, the company failed to provide a ‘Refurbishment and Demolition Survey’ and its own risk assessment was inadequate because it failed to identify the risks from asbestos.

On top of all of that, Oaktree did not carry out a structural assessment of the building and did not provide its staff with asbestos awareness training, despite a recommendation by the HSE in September 2010.

Simon Toseland commented:

“it is a strict duty that anybody who could potentially be exposed to asbestos has a minimum of asbestos awareness training.”

As a result of the countless failings, Wall Colomony was fined a total of £16,000 and ordered to pay £3,287 in costs after pleading guilty to breaching Sections 2(1) and 3(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974.

Oaktree Construction (Wales) Ltd was fined £8,000 with costs of £2,000 after pleading guilty to breaching Regulations 16 and 11(1) (a) of the of the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006.

Following the hearing, HSE Inspector, Anne Marie Orrells, said:

“Both companies involved in this case demonstrated significant failings throughout the management of the project, which put the lives of their respective workers at risk.

“Demolition and refurbishment work must be properly planned and managed by competent personnel with the right training and experience.

“Proper structural and asbestos surveys must be made and a full risk assessment carried out for all the work to be undertaken.

“Had a Refurbishment and Demolition survey been undertaken, and had a licensed asbestos contractor been used to removal all asbestos materials prior to the work starting, then the risk would have been eliminated.

“Instead this inadequate response left workers exposed to asbestos fibres, which can cause potentially fatal lung disease. The health and safety of workers must not be left to chance.”