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Prosecution for failing to protect workers highlights the dangers asbestos still poses 25 years after its ban in the UK

Two company directors of a Hampshire-based company have been prosecuted at Southampton Crown Court for failing to protect workers from exposure to asbestos. 

One director was sentenced to eight months in prison, whilst another was handed a four-month suspended sentence. The company itself was fined £30,000. 

The company refurbished a former commercial unit into student accommodation. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) conducted an investigation after receiving a concern that large quantities of asbestos insulation board (AIB) had been illegally removed.

The asbestos removal took place in late 2019 and early 2020. The workers were unqualified to do the job and unaware of the risks to their health. 

Dangers of asbestos 

Exposure to asbestos can result in several diseases including cancers such as mesothelioma and asbestos-related lung cancer. Unfortunately, there is no cure for mesothelioma. 

Conditions such as asbestosis and diffuse pleural thickening are non-cancerous but can cause significant disability by creating shortness of breath, and in some cases can be fatal. 

Asbestos was widely used in the building industry in the 20th century due to its fire-resistant properties. It came in numerous forms such as insulation, roofing material, tiles, and asbestos insulation boards. 

Asbestos started to decrease in the building industry from the mid-1960s as the dangers became more widely known. 

It was not until 1999 that all types of asbestos were banned in the UK. However, asbestos has remained in place in many private and public buildings since, such as in this case. 

Ten tonnes of AIB were estimated to have been removed by the company. AIB is particularly dangerous and is classified as higher risk. It can only be legally removed by licensed asbestos removal contractors who have specialist knowledge and equipment. 

The directors involved in the prosecution had sought a legitimate quote for the legal removal of the AIB. Yet, they instead chose to subject their workers to the hazardous material to avoid the significant costs associated with competent asbestos removal. 

Concerningly, the HSE investigation was unable to locate a significant amount of the AIB that was removed. It is unknown if this was fly-tipped or remains in the waste removal system. In either situation, it is likely that other people will come into contact with it, unaware of the serious dangers it presents. 

HASAG reaction to the prosecution

Lynne Squibb, co-founder of HASAG – an asbestos disease support group which is based in Southampton, but which supports patients across the South of England, states:  "It’s unbelievable that companies continue to knowingly put workers at considerable risk just to save money when they are fully aware that asbestos kills. 

"Mesothelioma is a devastating illness that has no cure and we are still seeing thousands of people in this country diagnosed very year.”

Legal support for those exposed to asbestos

Through my work supporting clients I too often come across the consequences of asbestos, usually many years after the exposure has taken place. Clients and families not only want answers regarding the exposure, but often require specialist support or access to ongoing care and treatments for their condition. 

While many may associate asbestos as a thing of the past this case clearly illustrates the substance is still present and still poses a safety risk, therefore all measure possible need to be taken to protect employees.

HSE Campaign

The current HSE campaign, Asbestos: Your Duty, aims to improve the understanding of what the legal duty around managing asbestos involves. It includes: 

  • Needing to assess if materials contain asbestos (if they’re unsure then they should presume it does);
  • Making and updating a record of the location and condition of the asbestos;
  • Assessing the risk of anyone being exposed to airborne fibres from the materials. 

To cover up their illegal actions, the directors paid for the legitimate removal of a small proportion of the AIB after the majority of it was illegally and dangerously removed.

It is likely to be argued that the courts sentences may not serve as an effective deterrent to others.

The relatively short sentence and suspended sentence on the directors may be seen as too lenient, given the significant and intentional breaches of duty of care.

The fine imposed on the company is relatively low, and in some situations it may be cheaper to pay the fine than to remove large quantities of asbestos. 

When to make a legal claim? 

Asbestos-related diseases can take decades to develop. Symptoms can include:

  • Shortness of breath (even at rest)
  • Weight loss
  • Chest pain
  • Phlegm production
  • Coughing and wheezing.

If you have a history of asbestos exposure and are demonstrating symptoms you should notify your GP. 

A legal claim can be investigated if you have a positive diagnosis of a compensable asbestos-related disease such as asbestosis, pleural thickening, mesothelioma, or asbestos-related lung cancer. 

Pleural plaques can be caused by asbestos but no longer give rise to legal action in England and Wales. If you live in Scotland you can still claim for pleural plaques. 

If you want to know more about asbestos legal claims and how Irwin Mitchell can help visit our dedicated asbestos-related disease support section.

More information on the HSE's prosecution can be found on its website.