Reporter 437, 24 May 1999


Interim report on the review of

the removal of partitioning containing asbestos

from the Pilot Plant Laboratory

School of Process, Environmental and Materials Engineering

May 1999


1. The Secretariat was asked on 7 May 1999 by the Registrar and Secretary (Dr David Robinson)

(a) to undertake an internal investigative review to determine as precisely as possible the sequence of events relating to the removal in April 1999 of partitioning containing asbestos from the Pilot Plant Laboratory in the School of Process, Environmental and Materials Engineering;

(b) to review associated issues as considered necessary;

(c) to identify steps which might be taken to prevent a recurrence of potentially hazardous episodes such as the one under investigation;

(d) to report, with recommendations as appropriate, to the Pro-Vice-Chancellor with oversight of health and safety in the University (Professor David Sugden) and to the Registrar and Secretary.

2. The review is being carried out by the Deputy Secretary (Roger Gair) assisted by David Wardle (Administrative Officer in the Secretariat). It must be emphasised that our concern has been with managerial and organisational arrangements: the Secretariat is not qualified to assess the health implications of exposure to asbestos.

3. In the event, we were not able to start our review until Tuesday 11 May. Over the next four days, we held preliminary interviews with most of the individuals directly involved in the events under investigation. (One, however, was on leave in the week commencing 10 May.) These preliminary interviews served to give us a broad overview of the events in question, to highlight the issues we had to address, and to allow us to reach some preliminary conclusions (as outlined below); but they did not enable us to answer all of the questions in our minds. Although it had originally been suggested that we should try to complete our review within a week, we therefore decided that we needed to undertake a further round of interviews starting in the week beginning 17 May, at the same time digging deeper into relevant paperwork. The further round of interviews is currently under way.

4. In the meantime, we have concluded that it would be appropriate to report in at least two stages. In the first instance, we are bringing forward - in this interim report - recommendations on those matters which at this stage we consider to be urgent, and on which we can reasonably expect prompt action to be taken. (If, as our investigations continue, we conclude that there are other urgent steps the University should be taking, we will produce a further interim report to say so.) We will then produce a final report covering, in detail, all of the issues in our remit (as indicated in 1 above). It is our intention to deliver that final report within a month from today. Ideally, we should have liked to have guaranteed delivery this month, but the issues which we are examining are important, and it would be wrong to rush our fences. In any case, there is more material to assess than we had originally expected; and we cannot know until we have finished the second round of interviews whether we will need further rounds.


Stage reached

5. At this stage, we are not able to give to our own satisfaction a clear and cogent account of the sequence of events relating to the removal in April 1999 of panels containing asbestos from the Pilot Plant Laboratory in the School of Process, Environmental and Materials Engineering. Resolving questions under this heading is the focus of the second round of interviews we are currently conducting (see 3 above).

6. We are, however, able to offer some recommendations now. These are summarised in 7-10 below, and will be amplified in our final report; as already indicated, they cover matters which we consider to be urgent and on which we can reasonably expect the University to take prompt action (and see 11 below).


7. We recommend that the University immediately engage independent external consultants to undertake a critical audit of the University’s health and safety arrangements, in particular with a view to ensuring that authority, expertise, resources and responsibility are optimally aligned. (We intend to comment as necessary in our final report on any interim arrangements required pending completion of any consultants' audit.)

8. We recommend too that, in any event, departments be advised, as a matter of urgency, that they cannot proceed with any additions to, or alterations of, the fabric of University buildings or engineering services without the written consent of Estates Services. Advice to that general effect is in fact included in the Service Level Agreement for Estates Services introduced in February 1997, but the Service Level Agreement does not specify that the consent of Estates Services should be in writing. Without such written confirmation, there will always be scope for confusion as to what has been agreed, by whom and when.

9. For reasons of prudence, we recommend that the University issue urgently a notice to resource centres reminding them that asbestos might be present in all but the newest buildings on campus; that the presence of asbestos is not usually obvious; and that this is one of the reasons why they should seek agreement in writing from Estates Services before undertaking any work on building fabric or engineering services.

10. Finally, we note that, although the University maintains an asbestos register, no-one contends that the register is comprehensive. (The register contained, for example, no mention of asbestos in the panelling in the Pilot Plant Laboratory.) We fully understand the problems of maintaining such a register, not least because asbestos is often ‘hidden’ behind non-hazardous fabric (and discernible only when that fabric is disturbed); but we would propose that the University designate a member of staff (either in Estates Services or in the Radiation Protection and Safety Services) to undertake a full institutional asbestos audit to identify both where asbestos is definitely located and where asbestos may reasonably be suspected.

11. For completeness, we must make it clear that two of the above recommendations accord with steps that the University was in fact already taking. With regard to the recommendation at 7 above, we have been informed that the University’s Strategy Group had already decided - as it happens the day before it knew of the asbestos incident - to set up a steering group to initiate discussions with a view to undertaking an institutional risk assessment covering health and safety and environmental issues, involving external experts as necessary. Similarly, we can report that plans were already in the pipeline - before the recent incident - to appoint a new member of staff for the purpose indicated in 10 above.



Deputy Secretary


18 May 1999

[Main news stories | Letters | In the news | News in brief | Events | Notice board]

HTML by Hannah Dee