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Kent County Council fined £200,000 over Sittingbourne school asbestos

By Paul Hooper

Kent County Council has been fined £200,000 after its treatment of asbestos in a school.

The judge in the case has also criticised a former head teacher and caretaker at Lansdowne Primary School in Gladstone Drive, Sittingbourne.

Judge Heather Norton said she regarded “neither as impressive” after reading statements about the removal of a steriliser and a flue from the school’s kitchens in May 2013, which later resulted in the kitchens being closed for a short period.

Lansdowne Primary School in Sittingbourne
Lansdowne Primary School in Sittingbourne

She said the caretaker’s account was “inconsistent” and the head teacher was “frankly evasive and (her account) difficult to follow".

Kent County Council admitted breaching Health and Safety regulations between May 2013 and October 2014 by “failing to ensure adequate information, instruction and training to employees".

Canterbury Crown Court heard that asbestos experts noted in July 2013 that there was an exposed section in the kitchen during refurbishment work.

Judge Norton said: “The surveyor initially graded the exposed flue as a medium risk, commenting that ongoing safe management of the item in situ was all that was required but it had to be safely removed if proposed works disturbed it.

“That was subsequently revised and required safe removal due to potential damage exposure.”

But the court heard that nothing was done for a year when the Health and Safety Executive closed the kitchen – although tests for airborne particles were normal.

Kent County Council has been fined £200,000
Kent County Council has been fined £200,000

The judge said the dangers of asbestos had been identified in reports from 2010 and 2012 as the housing around the flue contained amosite and the flu had chrsysotile.

KCC was urged to introduce asbestos awareness training but it was down to head teachers to ensure training was carried out.

Judge Norton said: “I find the council did therefore have appropriate systems in place to address but the failing was in having robust systems to ensure, check and monitor that the systems were being properly followed.”

She added the caretaker at Lansdowne said he didn’t have any asbestos training - although the head teacher ticked boxes saying he had been trained in 2012 and 2013 - and the returns were inaccurate.

“The head teacher’s explanation as to why she did this, if it was not correct, is at the very least extremely vague.”

The judge added that the risk of harm leading to death was high but precisely what harm was actually caused was disputed.

Experts said the “mathematical” risk was 0.0009% in 100,000.

KCC was given a month to pay the fine and HSE costs of £21,000.

Barrister Lee Bennett, who entered the guilty plea on behalf of the council, said KCC had apologised.

A KCC spokesman said: “This is an example of an isolated incident in which the robust asbestos management system that KCC employs in all its schools and properties was not followed at a particular school.

“Kent County Council places the utmost importance on the health, safety and welfare of its staff and of Kent residents but accepts on this occasion we fell short of the standard required as reflected in our guilty plea.

“We would like to offer reassurance that KCC operates a vigorous asbestos management policy and process across its property portfolio, including the school sector.

"Senior management and elected members at KCC have taken this matter extremely seriously throughout these proceedings and we are committed to ensuring that lessons are learned from this case and that any necessary changes are implemented within the council.

“We would also like to reassure parents and staff at this school that both the judge and the prosecution agreed that the risk level posed by the exposure of asbestos in this instance was low and that no pupils were put at risk.

“KCC is confident of meeting its legal duties under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and associated regulations, while continuing to deliver the services needed by its residents.”

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