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Woolies' asbestos fear

Environmental health probe leads to prosecution over refurbishment of store

WOOLWORTHS' massive store refurbishment programme is under threat after a local council launched a prosecution against the retail giant and specialist contractor LCH Contracts. It alleges staff and customers were exposed to asbestos fibres during work to remove the material at a store in Bideford, Devon.

The retailer has received a notice of intention to prosecute under health and safety regulations from Torridge District Council following an investigation by environmental health and safety officers.

Woolworths and Devon firm LCH are also due to find out whether they face prosecution over a refurbishment job in the Tiver ton district of the county.

If legal proceedings go ahead, Woolwor ths' ma ss ive ref u rbishment programme could face scrutiny by health and safety officials nationwide.

Asbestos removal specialist LCH won a three-year framework contract with Woolwor ths covering 600 stores. It had completed work at 400 stores by the time it worked at Bideford.

In April 2004 the district council received a complaint which sparked the 18-month investigation.

Many of Woolworths' ageing outlets have fire-resistant asbestos ceilings, which are understood to have been fitted in the 1960s. During the refurbishment some of the tiles were replaced and allegations centre on possible contamination and the working practices used to remove them.

Woolwo r th s ha s 800 s to re s across the UK and over the past two years it has refurbished 110 shops as part of a programme designed to boost sales.

In 2004 it refitted around 60 of its stores, which included a 10-store pilot early in the year.

It plans to revamp another 50 by January 2006.

LCH managing director Lee Hipgrave was unavailable for comment.

A spokeswoman for MidDevon District Council ? which represents both district councils ? said it was unable to comment. She added: 'A decision is due but I cannot comment on the case because it could prejudice a prosecution.'

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