The NHS trust which runs West Herts’ three hospitals is to be fined for putting its staff at risk of asbestos exposure.
The West Herts Hospitals NHS Trust – covering Hemel Hempstead, Watford and St Albans –reported itself to the Health and Safety Executive after a new member of staff raised concerns about the dangerous substance in one of its buildings.
A full survey was carried out, which resulted in the Trust pleading guilty to five charges of breaching health and safety regulations over an 11-year period.
At a hearing in St Albans Crown Court yesterday, it was revealed that 47 estate staff who had been involved in maintenance work at the hospitals had been contacted about the breaches.
While none had contracted any condition, prosecutor Adam Payter said: “There is a real risk they may contract a disease in the future.”
Exposure to asbestos at work can lead to contraction of the chronic lung condition asbestosis, and even the rare cancer mesothelioma.
At an earlier hearing before magistrates, 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.
The survey was prompted by the concerns of a newly-employed engineer at the Trust, who suggested there should be a more comprehensive asbestos survey in the H Block at Watford General Hospital.
The Trust also pleaded guilty to failing to have a written plan, failing to take measures for managing the risk from asbestos and 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.
It also admitted failing to take measures necessary to reduce the exposure of its employees to asbestos to the lowest level reasonably practicable.
Mr Payter, representing the Health and Safety Executive, said an aggravating factor in the case was that the Trust had, at times, been ‘reckless’.
He said: “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.”
Colin McCaul QC, defending, said: “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.
“The asbestos policy had not been fully understood and not implemented. That situation has now totally changed.”
The Trust’s chief executive Samantha Jones said: “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.
“This includes undertaking new and detailed surveys to show where the asbestos is on our sites, implementing dedicated asbestos management plans for each hospital and ensuring they are shared with relevant staff and contractors, improved training for appropriate staff about the risks relating to asbestos and a detailed induction for all contractors, appointing a dedicated senior manager who has overall responsibility for the control and management of asbestos at our hospitals, and safely removing a significant amount of asbestos.
“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.
Back in 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.
This followed an inspection by the Executive, which found it had failed to implement adequate systems to prevent the spread of Legionella bacteria in water systems.
Judge Stephen Gullick said he will deliver his sentence on the asbestos issue next week.