Mitchells & Butlers Retail Ltd was refurbishing the vacant White Horse pub on Harrowgate Hill in Darlington when construction workers were exposed to potentially deadly asbestos fibres.
A Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigation found that the company had commissioned a survey to check for the presence of asbestos in June 2007, but it was restricted to only those areas where the proposed refurbishment works were to be carried out. The refurbishment plans were then changed before work started.
Bishop Auckland Magistrates’ Court heard how, on 28 September 2007, the electricians and plumbers started work in a kitchen area which had not been included in the original survey.
The ceiling tiles in the kitchen contained asbestos. When the workers drilled into them with power tools, to install new wiring and plumbing, they were covered in dust and debris.
Mitchells & Butlers Retail Ltd, of Fleet Street, Birmingham was fined a total of £14,001 after pleading guilty to breaching Section 3(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 and Regulation 5 of the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006, and ordered to pay costs of £11,781.45.
HSE inspector Victoria Wise said: "Construction and maintenance workers are among those most at risk from asbestos-related diseases due to the nature of their work. Asbestos is still widely present in buildings constructed prior to 2000, so workers can often inadvertently disturb materials containing asbestos if the correct survey has not been carried out to check for its presence and appropriate control measures put in place.
"Mitchells & Butlers Retail Ltd knew there was asbestos in the building and should have ensured that all the areas where work was to be done had been checked for asbestos and the necessary precautions taken.
"Everyone who owns or operates commercial premises built prior to 2000 must ensure that a suitable and sufficient assessment for asbestos has been carried out prior to any construction work starting.
"In addition construction and maintenance workers should have asbestos awareness training so that they can recognise that some materials may contain asbestos and know what action to take."
Among the workers exposed was Jonathan Cook, 38, from Cleethorpes. He said: "Because the effects of asbestos take a long time to show up, the worry of whether the asbestos has caused lasting damage to my health will stay with me for years to come. And it’s not just me - it’s a huge worry for my partner also, as there is a chance that she might have been exposed to fibres that were brought home on my work clothes.
"Anyone working on refurbishment or construction projects should never take anything for granted and should make sure they get on an asbestos awareness course. Although we’d been given plans of the White Horse and the work we were doing, because the survey hadn’t been done we had no idea there was asbestos in the ceiling tiles until the site manager said something. If we’d been given the training before starting work, I definitely would have been much more vigilant about the risk that asbestos could be present."