M&S and its contractors found guilty of asbestos breaches
Retail giant Marks and Spencer and two of its contractors were found guilty today of failing to protect customers, staff and workers from the possibility of being exposed to asbestos during major refurbishment works at two of its stores.
The clothing and food store was subject to a three-month trial at Winchester Crown Court on charges of failing to ensure all steps were taken to prevent the deadly fibres from being unleashed in the shops.
The management is claimed to have been more concerned about the works being “unsightly” and “interfering with the shopping experience” of customers, the court heard.
The prosecution brought by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) related to works carried out at the company’s stores in Reading, Berkshire, and Bournemouth, Dorset.
The trial heard that construction workers at the two stores removed asbestos-containing materials that were present in the ceiling tiles and elsewhere.
But M&S did not allocate sufficient time and space for the removal of the asbestos-containing materials at the Reading store, the court was told.
The contractors had to work overnight in enclosures on the shop floor, with the aim of completing small areas of asbestos removal before the shop opened to the public each day, the court heard.
The HSE alleged that M&S failed to ensure that work at Reading complied with the appropriate minimum standards set out in legislation and approved codes of practice.
After nearly four days of deliberations, the jury found M&S guilty of two charges under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 of failing to ensure the health and safety of its staff and others at the Reading store.
Co-defendants Willmott Dixon Construction Limited, of Hertfordshire, was found guilty of contravening sections 2(1) and 3(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 at the Bournemouth store.
And Manchester-based company PA Realisations Ltd (formerly Pectel Ltd), was found guilty of contravening regulation 15 of the Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations 2002 at the Reading store.
At an earlier hearing, Styles & Wood Limited, of Manchester Road, Altrincham, Cheshire, pleaded guilty to contravening sections 2(1) and 3(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 relating to the Reading store.
Charles Gilby, HSE principal inspector, said: “This prosecution exposed serious failures by Marks and Spencer and its contractors that we hope others will learn from.
“This verdict is a wake-up call for the retail industry. Client accountability and responsibility is at the heart of this case, because asbestos can and does kill.
“There are very real lessons here for the country’s large retailers and other organisations engaging in programmes of refurbishment, that they must allow enough time and resource to carry out work without endangering anyone.”
The case was adjourned for sentence on September 26.
Richard Matthews, prosecuting, told the trial that M&S failed to plan its renovation works properly, causing shoppers, staff and contractors to possibly become exposed to the dust.
Mr Matthews said that M&S had failed to carry out sufficient surveys to identify the location of asbestos in the stores.
He explained that M&S as a company was experienced in handling asbestos, with 70% of its stores containing the hazardous building material, and the firm even had its own code of practice for dealing with it.
He said: “Marks and Spencer had a duty to make sure asbestos did not take those working in the store by surprise.
“If that meant making the store unsightly to customers or interfere with their shopping experience then so be it – better an unattractive store in the short term than the risk of anything else in the long term.”
Mr Matthews said that M&S could not shift the blame on to its contractors as it had a “duty of care” to ensure the work was carried out safely.
Mr Matthews said: “They are M&S stores, they are M&S buildings and it is M&S asbestos risk.
“You can’t just appoint someone to do the job and wash your hands of the responsibility.
“You have to ensure that people coming into your store, to carry out work or simply to visit, are protected.”
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