Asbestos in tunnels beneath London
An extensive web of tunnels beneath the vast St. Pancras Hospital in Camden have been welded shut and blocked from public after a shocking discovery of asbestos was made. The tunnels where the asbestos was found have been utilised daily by hospital staff for many decades.
St Pancras hospital is now part of the Camden & Islington NHS Foundation Trust (“the Trust”) and they took control of the hospital in 2012. The St Pancras Hospital specialises in geriatric and psychiatric medicine. The hospital was formerly the St Pancras Workhouse and dates back to 1777. It is not unusual for a building of this age to contain asbestos.
The problem only came to light when the Trust were negotiating with the maintenance contractor, Cofely. Cofely asked about the position with regard to management of the asbestos and that is when it transpired that the Trust had not filled specialist asbestos posts and it is not clear whether asbestos surveys of the premises and site were carried out when the Trust took over ownership of the site in 2012.
It is understood that crocidolite and amosite were found which are known as blue and brown asbestos and they are the most hazardous types of asbestos.
Under the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 duty holders have a duty to manage the risk of asbestos containing materials in their premises. All NHS Trusts come under the definition of “duty holder”.
The duty to manage the asbestos should include arranging for a comprehensive asbestos survey to identify asbestos. Thereafter preparing a written plan and an Asbestos Register on how to manage the risk of asbestos, implementing the plan, reviewing and monitoring the steps that are to be taken to ensure compliance and thereby eliminating the risk of staff being exposed to asbestos. If these steps are not taken then a Trust would fail in their duty to manage the asbestos in the premises and would have put their staff at risk.
The Trust stressed that the public have not been affected. In a statement released by the the Trust they said that their priority was “to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the group of our staff who may potentially have experienced exposure to asbestos-containing materials.” They also made it clear that they are in the process of “notifying individuals within that group and they will have full access to specialist screening and full occupational health input.”
The Trust have sent hospital staff for urgent lung tests but it is unlikely that the tests will reveal anything because asbestos related diseases lie dormant for many decades before they produce any symptoms.
The guidance that the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) provides in these situations is that individuals who may have been exposed to asbestos should visit their GP and request that a record be made on their GP records about the exposure and how it occurred. Asbestos illnesses can include the fatal cancer of the lining of the lungs, mesothelioma and some of the initial symptoms may include shortness of breath, a persistent cough and weight loss.
It is not uncommon for asbestos to be found in tunnels beneath hospitals. Solicitors in the Fieldfisher Asbestos Team have acted for doctors and nurses exposed to asbestos in hospital corridors at Guy's Hospital, University College London Hospital and the Hospital for Sick Children in Hackney. They were all diagnosed with mesothelioma which is a terminal disease.
Shaheen Mosquera, a specialist solicitor in our Asbestos Disease Team says:
“it is shocking to hear that a large Trust such as the Camden & Islington NHS Trust put their staff at unnecessary risk even though the dangers of asbestos have been known for decades. The risk to staff could have been mitigated by the Trust obtaining a full asbestos survey to identify the areas which contained asbestos and by managing the asbestos risk and taking necessary precautions which could have included removing the asbestos or encapsulating the asbestos. The HSE provides guidance to duty holders and the Trust could have obtained advice from the HSE”