Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Day 27 - Health and Safety gets it right

Outside the site safety signs are prominent, and before getting any access at all, Jason, managing the site, issues me with a hard hat and the ubiquitous hi-vis vest, of the kind detested by those who believe that ‘elf and safety’ has gone mad. A lovely touch is a notice amongst the safety warnings informing all and sundry that ‘Bad language will not be tolerated on this site’. Presumably that’s a warning for construction personnel and not for enthusiastic liturgists. Good to know.

And so into the cathedral, through the crypt and up, past the stairs where the old stair lift lies gutted, across the screened-off south transept with its temporary meeting space and up, into the great library.

It’s quiet in the library; and of course it should be quiet in a library. But in the midst of the ‘Hidden treasures: Fresh Expressions’ renovation project, a quiet library almost exactly not what is required at this stage. Elsewhere the work continues; below in the crypt the space on the south-west side for entrance to the new lift is cleared, ready for the next phase of building. Across the crypt to the east, the formerly filled-in arch is yielding more secrets – slots are clearly visible which held the great wooden beams which the Victorian engineers jammed up against the arch to counter the threat of subsidence. The clearing out of the rest of the crypt space is progressing too, accompanied by the sound of powerful electric saws and grinders. Fortunately the noise isn’t enough to disturb the midday prayers above. 

But in the library it is quiet. In truth, there should also be quite noisy activity here; the oak panelling needs to be fully stripped out and a new floor needs to be laid, with stronger timbers to carry the weight of additional holding hundreds of books, and exhibition capacity – the whole pace made more accessible for use as research, display and demonstration space. Beneath the library is the vestry – already cleared of its oak, in preparation for adaptation into space for educational and musical activities – flexible enough to be used by two groups at the same time. Presumably the sound insulation will be up to the task ...

Much to do, and yet it is quiet in the library. Quiet, that is, except for the soft hiss you might miss from a small yellow box with a black stand holding a short length of plastic piping attached to what looks like an old 35mm film container. It hisses comfortably for what will be a spell of half an hour. All work has stopped in this space, and the yellow box provides the clue.    

‘Asbestos,’ says Jason, who is now gingerly showing me round; ‘We found some asbestos under the paneling by the window.’

A quick glance is enough to confirm the presence of a sheet of dull gray tiling, a tiny amount picked away at the edge, presumably in the act of the dismantling which has revealed its deadly presence.

‘They probably used it as heat protection around a radiator,’ he says, and goes on to explain that a small amount has also been found in a cable duct. Prevention against a cable fire; enough to stop flames coming through. All in the age before the destructive effect of its silicate fibers on human health was generally known.

I’m taken back to a wet afternoon in the science lab at school. Whilst while our teacher tried valiantly to unlock the mysteries of chemical equations, two of us were busy picking apart the asbestos covers in the bunsen burner apparatus. That was also the same lab in which we were encouraged to dip our fingers directly into a heavy glass jar full of mercury, so that we could experience the feel of a metal which is liquid at room temperature.
But no such chances are being taken today. The yellow box is steadily sucking in the air and the micro filters in the black canister will be examined under a microscope for the presence of fibers which will determine the level of protection needed to be put in place by specialist asbestos removers who will enable the work to continue.

In safety.

The Revd Jonathan Jennings - Vicar of ST Augustine's Gillingham

Editors Note - No trace of asbestos was found in the Library by the "yellow box" - Our Guest Blogger was safer than in his schools days!

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