Asbestos scare sparks Lynn News evacuation

The editor and 25 journalists at the Lynn News were evacuated last week when an asbestos-type ceiling lining was uncovered during work on new air conditioning units.

After the material was identified, the concerned staff were crammed onto the second floor of the building while their sealed first floor office underwent decontamination. They worked on equipment borrowed from other Johnston Press newspapers in order to get out the week’s two issues.

The newspaper could face prosecution by the Borough of Kings Lynn and West Norfolk environmental department for breaches of the health and safety regulations.

The clothes the journalists were wearing had to be returned in bags for disposal and will be replaced by the company. Their computers, along with office furniture and carpets, will be junked.

Hard copy from village correspondents had to be left on the first floor and many News columns were saved only because Bill Thompson, whose hazardous waste removal firm was doing the clean-up, was a computer buff who sat in his protective clothing to download key material from hard drives onto a file server on instructions from the production staff to his mobile telephone.

Editor Malcolm Powell said: "Above the ceiling tiles, they disturbed insulation material which proved to have an asbestos element in it."

Old building records showed the material was Asbestolux. "We checked the name on the internet and rang the council environmental health department ourselves. They arranged for the health and safety executive to be informed and an approved asbestos disposal company was brought in to advise us," explained Powell.

"The staff and I have been very concerned about the safety aspect. But they have been terrific. We called in favours from neighbouring papers and they were all very supportive."

Getting the papers out was a triumph of organisation, he claimed. News editor Donna Semmens had to remember where her journalists were, as they were squeezed into any spare space in the building, their different phone numbers, and whether they had got a phone or a computer.

The council has been supervising the cleaning work, which involved operatives in protective clothing using super-vacuum cleaners.

"When they first came in it was like something you see on telly," said Powell. "There were people in white suits, white masks, breathing apparatus. They did look a bit Martian-like."

Bob Murphy, the council’s assistant chief environmental health officer, said the authority’s first task was to make sure the whole building was made safe. "Then we need to have an investigation into how and why this arose," he said. "The decision on what action we take will be made a bit down the line."


By Jean Morgan

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