The crew of 50 workers was working on the refurbishment of a 50m-high industrial furnace at fertiliser manufacturer GrowHow UK’s plant at Ince Marshes near Ellesmere Port in January 2011.
Contractors had been demolishing brickwork and insulation boards for two days, using hammers, chisels and crow bars, before a bricklayer raised concerns that asbestos may be present. This was confirmed when material from the site was taken for analysis.
Around 4,000 people die every year as a result of breathing in asbestos fibres, making it the biggest single cause of work-related deaths in the UK.
A subsequent Health & Safety Executive (HSE) investigation found that GrowHow had failed to carry out an appropriate asbestos survey before allowing the project to start, despite the fact that the demolition work was likely to create large amounts of dust.
GrowHow UK Ltd has now been prosecuted by the HSE
Chester Crown Court heard last week that the workers had been breaking up rubble, putting it into sacks and pouring it down a chute so the sacks could be reused, without knowing that the dust they were creating may have contained asbestos fibres.
Once asbestos was discovered, the workers were ordered to leave the site and all of their protective clothing and equipment was bagged up and destroyed due to the risk of contamination.
GrowHow UK Ltd was fined £60,000 and ordered to pay £17,094 in prosecution costs after pleading guilty to one breach of the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006 and two breaches of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 on 4 October 2013.
Speaking after the hearing, HSE inspector Daniel Longdon said: "Dozens of workers at GrowHow were exposed to potentially deadly fibres because the company didn't carry out a risk assessment to see if asbestos was present in the industrial furnace.
"They will have to live with the uncertainty for the rest of their lives of not knowing whether they will develop lung cancer or other diseases, such as mesothelioma, as a result.