Marks and Spencer and two of its contractors have been convicted of putting members of the public, staff and construction workers at risk of exposure to asbestos.
The Health and Safety Executive successfully prosecuted the retail giant and PA Realisations (formerly Pectel) regarding handling of the dangerous material at its store in Reading, while Willmott Dixon was found guilty for safety breaches at a Bournemouth store.
Winchester Crown Court heard construction workers at the two stores removed asbestos-containing materials that were present in the ceiling tiles and elsewhere between 2006 and 2007.
The court heard that the client, Marks and Spencer, did not allocate sufficient time and space for the removal of the asbestos-containing materials at the Reading store. The contractor, PA Realisations, worked 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 HSE alleged that Marks and Spencer failed to ensure that work at Reading complied with the appropriate minimum standards set out in legislation and approved codes of practice. Marks and Spencer was found in breach of section 2 (1) and section 3 (1) of the Health and Safety as Work Act in charges relating to the Reading store. The retailer was found not guilty of charges relating to the Bournemouth store.
The principal contractor at the Bournemouth store, Willmott Dixon, is said to have failed to plan, manage and monitor removal of asbestos-containing materials. It did not prevent the possibility of asbestos being disturbed by its workers in areas that had not been surveyed extensively.
HSE principal inspector Charles Gilby 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 guilty companies will be sentenced on 26 September 2011.
A statement from Willmott Dixon read: “Willmott Dixon is disappointed and surprised by today’s verdict; it is the first time in our 160 year history that we have been convicted of a health and safety related offence.
“Health and safety is at the centre of everything Willmott Dixon does, underpinned by rigorous procedures and a ‘safety first’ culture. This is further strengthened by having one of the industry’s largest teams of in-house health and safety inspectors, who visit, monitor and assess each project on a regular basis. We are proud of our health and safety record, which we believe is one of the best in the industry.
“We believe we acted appropriately at all times on the project in Bournemouth for Marks and Spencer, which included using an HSE licensed and experienced asbestos removal subcontractor selected from the Marks and Spencer approved list, which we were required to use in sourcing a subcontractor.
“At the time we appointed and used the specialist asbestos removal subcontractor, we had no knowledge of the existing concerns the HSE had about their previous performance. Had we been informed they would not have been engaged.
“Clearly we have to take on board today’s verdict and will see what we can learn from the incident. We are however minded to appeal.”