Inquiry after asbestos scare

May 28, 1999

Fifty staff and students at Leeds University were unknowingly exposed to white asbestos for a week before technicians realised the dangerous substance was contained in wall panels being refurbished in a laboratory.

After the discovery the Brotherton Laboratory was sealed off for several days. Staff and students - all of whom have been offered health checks - have demanded to know why the department of process, environmental and materials engineering went ahead with the refurbishment before a risk- assessment report had been completed.

A health inspector said: "I would be concerned if this incident was caused by management deficiencies. It seems a lot of managers don't fully appreciate their responsibilities."

The university denied that safety considerations had been flouted, although it admitted there had been a failure of communications.

"We are holding an investigation to establish where and why our safety and administrative procedures failed," said a spokesman.

A university statement stressed that while no asbestos is safe, white asbestos is the "least pernicious" variety. The university's occupational health officer, John Papworth-Smith, said that in his opinion the exposure to staff and students "was at the lower end of the scale of risk".

But an interim report of the investigation says no clear account of the removal of the wall panels has been established.

The report found the university's register of asbestos on campus to be incomplete and it recommended that independent external consultants audit the university's health and safety arrangements.

The report also recommends that, to avoid confusion, departments should be advised that they cannot proceed with any alterations to the fabric of buildings without the written consent of the estates department. There should also be an urgent notice to remind departments that asbestos might be present in all but the newest buildings on campus.

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