Extracts from a report by Neil Macfarlane, Northern Echo 04/09/2007
A council that knowingly exposed staff at a sports centre to asbestos may have to pay out millions of pounds in compensation, legal experts warn. An unknown number of employees at Woodhouse Close Leisure Complex, in Bishop Auckland, were allowed to work unprotected for five years after inspectors discovered the substance.
The sports centre’s owner, Wear Valley District Council, was fined £18,000 after it admitted six breaches of health and safety law. The Health and Safety Executive described the case as one of the worst breaches committed in the region
Daniel Easton, a solicitor at litigation specialist Leigh Day and Co, said people who contracted industrial diseases because of their employer’s negligence can expect to receive up to £400,000 in compensation.
The council was told about asbestos at Woodhouse Close’s boiler room in 2001, but inspection reports were ignored until January last year, when worker Jim Dawson made an official complaint against the council. At least three people are known to have worked full-time in the room during that period. The men have been warned that the exposure will pose a significant risk to their health, but because no official monitoring records were kept, it is unclear how many people have been affected.
Mr Easton said employees will only be able to sue the council if they fall ill with an asbestos-related disease, and that no action can be taken for stress caused by the knowledge that they may have been affected. He said: “People in this situation are understandably incredibly worried about the future, but the Court of Appeal decided last year that if there has been no disability caused, then they cannot get compensation. “One claim was rejected from a man who was even diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder because he was so worried.”
Roger Maddocks, an industrial disease specialist at Newcastle law firm Irwin Mitchell, described the £18,000 fine imposed on the council as surprisingly lenient. He said: “The fine is surprisingly small considering the length of time that passed between the discovery of asbestos and its removal. “There is no doubt that the council’s failure to act exposed the employees concerned to the risk of developing a serious asbestos-related condition in later life. Because of the North-East’s industrial history, there is a strong awareness here of the effects that asbestos can have, and it makes it even more surprising that action was not taken sooner.”
Wear Valley District Council declined to comment