HSE rebuke followed safety assurance

Lampeter was criticised over asbestos after it had reassured staff about risk, writes Melanie Newman

October 16, 2008

The Health and Safety Executive criticised the University of Wales, Lampeter for failing to "manage the risks from asbestos" a week after staff were told that asbestos found on the premises was not hazardous and that the HSE was not concerned.

On 19 July, a member of university staff walked into a room in Lampeter's Canterbury Building that was unmarked by warning signs even though contractors in protective suits were removing asbestos.

After the incident, the University and College Union met with university managers and John Bridle, an asbestos consultant (see box), to discuss staff concerns.

A UCU spokesman said: "(Professor) Bridle explained that health and safety concerns about asbestos were frequently exaggerated ..." The professor stated that the material in the Canterbury Building was "beaverboard coated with an asbestos film", the UCU representative said. "He produced samples of the material ... from the Canterbury Building (which he was keeping in unsealed plastic bags), stating that the material was not notifiable and posed no measurable risk."

On 23 July, Carol Jenkins, a Lampeter personnel officer, sent an email to all staff to allay fears after "some unfortunate rumours" about asbestos. In it, she said that ceiling tiles with the "lowest grade of asbestos to be found and (which) are not considered a hazard" had been discovered and removed by specialist contractors. "The HSE has inspected the paperwork completed by the contractors, and they are content that the exercise was correctly carried out," she said.

But a week later, the HSE told Lampeter that it was investigating after "a recent asbestos disturbance ... by contractors". It said the university had "failed to manage the risks from asbestos", and it issued a formal improvement notice, which asked Lampeter to inspect the site and draft an asbestos-management plan that included "information about the risks associated with asbestos-containing materials".

A risk assessment prepared by the contractors hired to remove the tiles refers to a "high risk" of dust/asbestos fibres and says "all inhalation of dust is hazardous and will eventually cause respiratory problems".

A spokesman for the UCU's national health and safety team said: "We think the university handled this poorly."

Lampeter said the HSE notice related "to the university's asbestos-management plan, was not related to the find in the Canterbury Building, and it has been acknowledged that a number of items listed in this notice are already in place".

An HSE spokesman said the notice was prompted by the Canterbury site. "The work that was undertaken in the Canterbury Building gave rise to the initial improvement notice, which was issued on 30 July. This related to work in the Canterbury Building."

He added: "We are currently undertaking an investigation into Lampeter's overall management of the risks posed by asbestos."

melanie.newman@tsleducation.com

OFCOM DISMISSES CONSULTANT'S COMPLAINT

The consultant on asbestos safety who met with academic union representatives at the University of Wales, Lampeter, has a controversial background.

In 2006, John Bridle was the subject of a Radio 4 You and Yours programme, which challenged his views on asbestos safety.

The BBC said that Professor Bridle has asserted that white asbestos poses no measurable health risk, contrary to the opinion of the World Health Organisation and World Trade Organisation.

Professor Bridle complained to broadcasting regulator Ofcom, arguing that he believed only that encapsulated white asbestos "bonded to manufactured products" posed no measurable risk, and that the BBC did not make this clear. Ofcom did not uphold his complaint.

Lampeter said: "We met with John Bridle on a single occasion. He did not provide any advice on the removal of the asbestos."

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