Housing association under pressure to release reports on asbestos exposure

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THE Scottish Borders Housing Association is coming under increasing pressure to release reports into an incident of asbestos exposure which may, claims a trade union, have health implications for employees, their families and even some tenants.

The region’s largest landlord, with more than 5,500 lettable units, has been accused of “aggressively refusing” to disclose the contents of the documents, relating to works carried out in Hawick four years ago.

And this week, the union Unite, acting on behalf of employees involved on that job, has submitted a request to SBHA under Freedom of Information legislation to make the details available.

The alleged exposure to white asbestos occurred in September 2007 when three SBHA workmen were instructed to carry out renovation work at West Port in Hawick.

It was part of a project to convert an empty ground-floor flat in an occupied block into SBHA offices.

Test holes were drilled to check the foundations ahead of supports being installed, the floor was lifted, walls were stripped and the ceiling was taken down. It was, claimed an SBHA source who does not wish to be named, a “dirty, dusty job” and had lasted for about a fortnight when the work was closed down and a specialist firm brought in with decontamination equipment.

It is claimed that a report – later revised – on asbestos contamination at the site was compiled by a Selkirk-based firm called Eco Safety which, at the time, was acting as health and safety adviser to SBHA.

“These guys [the SBHA employees] had no specialist equipment and were going home at night to their wives and kids, covered in asbestos dust, looking like snowmen,” said the source.

“It is little wonder that concerns have been raised about the long-term effects of such exposure to them and their families.”

It is understood one of the workmen involved in the West Port job has made 13 unsuccessful requests to see the reports – original and revised – and the matter was taken up by the union earlier this year.

At May’s meeting of SBHA’s health and safety liaison group, an SBHA shop steward made an official verbal request for the reports to be released, but this has not happened, according to Unite whose Borders branch secretary George Wilson submitted his FoI request to the association yesterday.

Copies of the request and its accompanying narrative have also been sent to the statutory Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and the watchdog Scottish Housing Regulator (SHR).

In his letter to SBHA chief executive Julia Mulloy, Mr Wilson states: “For some time now Unite has been trying to access copies of the reports relating to the asbestos incident at West Port.

“We are doing this purely to ascertain the full facts of the matter in the clear and definitive interest of our members, their future health, safety and medical welfare and that of their families who may have been inadvertently exposed ... and for the [undecanted] tenants of SBHA who lived above the building work whilst it was undertaken.

“To date, the current management has, in our opinion, unprofessionally and unreasonably refused to allow us access to this information, so we can have the matter independently assessed and verified.”

And in the letters to the HSE and SHR, Mr Wilson claims SBHA management has “aggressively refused” previous requests for access, adding: “In the atmosphere of secrecy, we have now had to submit an FoI request, but fully expect the current management at SBHA to resist our access to this information.”

SBHA this week asserted its commitment to “robust health and safety practices and mandatory training on the identification and awareness of asbestos management”.

Mrs Mulloy told us yesterday: “SBHA discussed the alleged incident at West Port in 2007 with the Unite senior steward on Friday of last week. It was agreed that neither Unite nor SBHA had communicated further on this matter in the months since the May meeting [of the health and safety liaison group] – an oversight on both our parts.

“It was also agreed that a meeting with staff who worked on the site would be called to discuss and clarify any concerns which these staff may have.

“We plan to work closely with the union and staff over the next couple of weeks to establish the details of individual accounts and to whom concerns have been reported, and we will respond to the verbal request [regarding the reports] in due course.”