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20 August 2014, 11:59
A Hertfordshire NHS trust that runs three hospitals has been ordered to pay nearly £90,000 for putting its staff at risk of exposure to asbestos.
The West Herts Hospitals NHS Trust, which comprises Watford General, Hemel Hempstead General and St Albans City hospitals, was criticised by a judge for "very serious and persistent" failures.
The Health and Safety Exectutive began an investigation after the Trust itself sent it a 'Dangerous Occurance Report' in December 2011.
The HSE found that prior to 2011 surveys into the presence of asbestos at the hospitals were deficient.
The manager with overall responsibility for asbestos was inadequately qualified, training was lacking, record keeping and appropriate management plans were also deficient and maintenance staff, in particular, had been potentially exposed to asbestos.
In 2007 an asbestos risk policy was formulated, which required risk assessments to be made before employees of the Trust working for the Estate Department, carried out any particular piece of work.
But Judge Stephen Gullick said today/Weds: "No risk assessments were in fact carried out either before or after that policy was drawn up and thus the Trust did not even follow its own procedures.
Clearly, management and supervision was grossly inadequate in ensuring that the asbestos risk assessment police was implemented."
When outside contractors were used on larger projects they managed the asbestos risk, but there were no procedures in place for any information they gleaned on asbestos to be passed on to the Trust's Estates Department.
Prosecutor Adam Payter said that 47 estate staff who had been involved in maintenance work at the hospitals had been contacted. None had contracted any condition, but he said: "There is a real risk they may contract a disease in the future."
At an earlier magistrates' hearing the trust admitted that between April 1, 2000 and December 6, 2011 it had failed to ensure the health, safety and welfare of employees exposed to asbestos.
It also pleaded guilty to failing to have a written plan; failing to take measures for managing the risk from asbestos; failing to give adequate information, instruction and training to employees likely to be exposed to the fibres between November 12, 2006 and December 6, 2011.
In addition the trust pleaded guilty to failing to take measures necessary to reduce the exposure of its employees to asbestos to the lowest level reasonably practicable.
The case was committed to the crown court for sentence.
Mr Payter, who was representing the Health and Safety Executive, said an aggravating factor in the case was that the trust had at times been reckless. "It was aware of the risk, but failed to take appropriate action.
"There was considerable potential for harm to workers, there were continuing breaches rather than an isolated lapse, the defendant was aware of the risks, but ignored them.
It was a continued breach and fell far below the standard required," he said.
Colin McCaul QC, defending, said the trust had self-reported its inadequacies over asbestos management to the Health and Safety Executive.
"The trust has been candid with itself, the Health and Safety Executive, the court and public.
The system now in operation is robust, comprehensive and easily comprehensible.
All asbestos has now been removed or contained.
There has been an action plan for removal and containment."
He went on: "The asbestos policy had not been fully understood and not implemented. That situation has now totally changed."
Addressing the trust's finances, he said that this year it was running a deficit of £13,370,000.
He said that it was now the case that no directors or members of the board were paid bonuses. Mr McCaul said that every pound spent on a fine could be used for front-line services.
On 5 January 2006 the trust was fined £17,000 by Hemel Hempstead magistrates after pleading guilty to two offences under the Health and Safety at Work Act.
It followed an inspection by the HSE that found it had failed to implement adequate systems to, among other things, prevent the spread of Legionella bacteria in its water systems.
Judge Gullick said: "The current proceedings are yet a further example of systemic management failures in the extremely important area of safety in the workplace."
He went on: "The failures admitted by the Trust were very serious and were persistent - repeated over many years - at least six and probably more.
Those failures meant that wholly inadequate regard was had to the safety of their employees in the Estates Department, in particular.
"Middle and senior management were clearly aware of the risks posed by asbestos, which is the greatest cause of work-related deaths in the United Kingdom, and appreciated that serious harm was patently foreseeable, but appear to have been corporately incapable of putting in place, and then operating, procedures to minimise the risk so far as their employees were concerned.
"Not dissimilar behaviour would appear to have been at the heart of the 2006 conviction.
What harm resulted from the failures which have been highlighted in this case, it is impossible to say.
Harm, in the form of asbestos-related disease, may only emerge in 20 or 30 years time."
He fined the Trust £55,000 and ordered it to pay the Health and Safety Executive's costs of £34,078.69.
Samantha Jones, Chief Executive, said: “Today, the Trust received sentence for the five offences under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 to which we pleaded guilty in June this year.
The offences relate to the management of asbestos at our three hospital sites over a period in excess of ten years dating from the creation of West Hertfordshire Hospitals NHS Trust in 2000.
Whilst the charges concern events which pre-date my arrival at the Trust, I take full responsibility on behalf of the Trust Board for the failures which led to the prosecution.
Asbestos is common in buildings of the age of our hospitals, but the court found that the Trust had not taken its responsibilities as seriously as it should have done in relation to the safe management of asbestos, and for that I apologise.
Importantly, we have made significant changes in recent years to the way we manage and control asbestos across our hospitals, ensuring the risk of exposure is at the lowest possible level.
We have invested heavily in the safe removal and management of asbestos across all three sites.
Since 2012, we have spent almost £1.6 million and we plan to spend a further £500,000 over the course of this year."