Rugeley firm G Evans (Services) Ltd was refurbishing Glenthorne Community Primary School in Cheslyn Hay for the council when the incident happened on Friday 13 February 2009.
Stafford Crown Court heard that two joiners were cutting through a large built-in cupboard in the nursery class when they noticed unidentified material nailed to the back of it.
They showed this to their site manager, who allowed them to carry on dismantling the cupboard and to detach the material. However, the material was asbestos insulating board, which by law should only be moved by a licensed asbestos removal contractor. The court heard how the joiners used an ordinary vacuum cleaner to clear up dust and debris, which would also have spread asbestos fibres in the air.
On the Friday the work was undertaken, seventeen children aged between three and four, were in the classroom for half-day sessions together with a teacher and a teaching assistant. A school cleaner, who was working in the classroom later in the day, was also exposed to the potentially dangerous substance.
The following Monday, an analyst who was monitoring asbestos levels in the air during licensed asbestos removal work, spotted pieces of asbestos insulating board in an open skip. The school was closed immediately for investigation and subsequent decontamination.
A Health & Safety Executive (HSE) investigation into the incident found Staffordshire County Council had failed to carry out a pre-refurbishment asbestos survey in the nursery before work started. These surveys were essential to ensure that anyone who was likely to work or disturb asbestos was provided with information on the location and condition of the asbestos.
G Evans (Services) Ltd had not taken sufficient steps to identify the asbestos insulating board attached to the cupboard before work started and its procedures for identifying asbestos containing materials were inadequate which permitted their site manager to assume the material was safe to work with and to continue disturbing it. The court heard the work should have been stopped until the material had been investigated further.
HSE inspector David Brassington said after the hearing: "A series of assumptions and missed opportunities led to contractors, school staff and nursery age children being exposed to asbestos fibres during refurbishment work.
"The joiners who were working directly with the asbestos were significantly exposed to the disturbed fibres– something that should not have happened with proper planning and access to an asbestos survey before work commenced.
"Fortunately, the risk to children and school staff who were in the classroom the same day as the asbestos was disturbed will have been lower because they spent less time in the nursery at the time when the asbestos was initially disturbed.
"This incident has understandably caused a great deal of anxiety. As soon as the suspect material was found the work should have been stopped for further investigation.
"The long term health risks associated with exposure to asbestos dust are well known and it is unacceptable for incidents such as this to be taking place."
Staffordshire County Council, of Tipping Street, Stafford, pleaded guilty to breaching Section 3(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 and was today (14 December) fined £10,000and ordered to pay £5,000 costs.
G Evans (Services) Ltd, of Wheelhouse Road, The Towers, Rugeley, pleaded guilty to breaching Sections 2(1) and 3(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 and was fined £8,000 and ordered to pay £4,000 costs.