TWO stonemasons contracted an incurable and potentially fatal lung disease because of Health and safety lapses by a centuries-old York firm, the city’s magistrates heard.

Building restoration specialists William Anelay Ltd of Osbaldwick risked all their employees’ health for 14 years by not taking precautions to cut the amount of stone dust in the air of their stonemasonry centre, said Julian Franklin, for the Health and Safety Executive.

He outlined a series of failures by the company, including not insisting on stonemasons wearing face masks, not using water to dampen down stone when it was being cut, not maintaining ventilation systems and not carrying out chest X-rays to detect early signs of lung disease.

“The end result of these failings is that two employees have developed a debilitating and life threatening disease for which there is no cure,” he said.

Magistrates decided their maximum powers of a £20,000 fine were not enough and sent the company to the crown court for sentence. Its solicitor, Guy Otten, told them that its expected profit for the year ended June 2009 would be £24,200.

The company, founded in 1747, pleaded guilty to an offence of failing to ensure the safety of all of its employees between May 13, 1994, and July 11, 2008, including John Whittaker and David Medley, both of whom now have silicosis, caused by tiny stone fragments being inhaled into the lungs. Mr Otten said since the Health and Safety Executive served improvement notices on the company, it had spent £168,271 on reducing employees’ exposure to dust, including breathing helmets for stonemasons so that they breathed clean air, and improving the ventilation system.

The company had been let down by external health and safety advisors who had not alerted it to the lack of precautions and by occupational health experts who had not insisted on chest X-rays.

Mr Medley was now assistant masonry manager with special responsibility to ensure his colleagues’ health was safeguarded and the company had appointed a special health and safety manager.

Mr Whittaker had taken early retirement.