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Ashford Panorama asbestos: Gurkhas left exposed

By Paul Hooper

Former Gurkha soldiers were exposed to potentially lethal asbestos dust while working on a multi-million pound building site.

They had been recruited to do security at Charter House in Park Street in Ashford in 2013, but were then employed as construction workers.

Now a judge has heard that there was so much asbestos-strewn rubble in the old building during the conversion that the site resembled a “war zone”.

A view inside the stripped interior of the Panorama in September 2013. Courtesy of Steve Salter

A view inside the stripped interior of the Panorama in September 2013. Courtesy of Steve Salter

But despite Barroerock Construction admitting two health and safety breaches, no one will pay the £750,000 fine or the £15,000 court costs.

The Enfield-based company has gone into liquidation due to “money-flow problems”, despite having an average annual turnover of £10m between 2014 and 2016.

Judge Heather Norton was told that the company director Sean O’Connor has since launched a new company from the same company building in North London.

Canterbury Crown Court heard that up to 200 workers including Gurkhas were exposed to asbestos from February to April 2013 and again – despite warnings from the Health and Safety Executive – between February and June in 2014.

Work at the site stopped in 2014 after asbestos was found behind a wall, and HSE closed down the building site for a month while an investigation was carried out. HSE then issued four notices to Barroerock in December 2014.

The Panorama has been converted from offices into flats

The Panorama has been converted from offices into flats

Prosecutor Rebecca Chalkley said the ex-soldiers wouldn’t know if they had been affected for 25 to 30 years.

“We just don’t know what the long-term effects or consequences will be and we won’t know for some years,” she added.

Barroerock Construction won the contract to turn the former office block known as Charter House into 234 apartments and now called the Panorama as part of a £14m project.

A survey was ordered before work began which identified that both brown and white asbestos was present in floor tiles, adhesive, ceiling tiles, door surrounds, a toilet cistern, floor ducts, stair nosings and risers.

The judge heard how one of the company bosses gave instructions to the Gurkhas but “did not ask whether they had had asbestos training and the company did not provide any awareness training”.

Work inside the Panorama building in February 2014. Courtesy of Steve Salter

Work inside the Panorama building in February 2014. Courtesy of Steve Salter

Workers were given ordinary dust masks, safety goggles, boots and ear plugs but not coveralls and some of the workers left the site still wearing work clothes.

HM inspectors made a routine visit to the site in 2013 and as a result specialist contractors were brought in to tackle the asbestos.

But Ms Chalkley revealed that as they were doing their job the workers were carrying on working among the rubble and dust.

One of the asbestos contractors later told the HSE that the building “resembled a war zone” and it appeared the company “did not care” about the asbestos risks.

The court heard that the Gurkhas were recruited by word of mouth and for many it had been their first job in civilian life.

Judge Heather Norton

Judge Heather Norton

The prosecutor said the company had “blatantly disregarded” the threats posed in the survey and had breached its duty of care to the employees – and they didn't even investigate what training the Ghurkas had undergone.

Judge Norton said the company then went into liquidation – but added: "I am not clear why that was so, given its average £10m turnover for three years."

The company, which had pleaded guilty last year to two heath and safety breaches, did not show up for the hearing and its lawyers told the court by letter it wouldn’t represent Barroerock as it was also owed money.

The fines imposed by the judge will now be added to the list of creditors.

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