High street retailer and two contractors found guilty of asbestos safety failings

Marks and Spencer plc and two of its contractors have been convicted for putting members of the public, staff and construction workers at risk of exposure to asbestos-containing materials during the refurbishment of two stores.

Asbestos is the biggest single cause of work-related deaths in the UK, with an estimated 4,000 people dying every year.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) prosecuted Marks and Spencer plc, Willmott Dixon Construction Ltd and PA Realisations Ltd (formerly Pectel Ltd). The work was carried out between 2006 and 2007 on shops in Reading and Bournemouth.

Winchester Crown Court heard construction workers at the two stores removed asbestos-containing materials that were present in the ceiling tiles and elsewhere.

The court heard that the client, Marks and Spencer plc, did not allocate sufficient time and space for the removal of the asbestos-containing materials at the Reading store. 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 HSE alleged that Marks and Spencer plc failed to ensure that work at Reading complied with the appropriate minimum standards set out in legislation and approved codes of practice. The company had produced its own guidance on how asbestos should be removed inside its stores, and the court heard that this guidance was followed by contractors inappropriately during major refurbishment.

The contractor, PA Realisations Ltd, failed to reduce to a minimum the spread of asbestos to the Reading shop floor. Witnesses said that areas cleaned by the company were re-contaminated by air moving through the void between the ceiling tiles and the floor above, and by poor standards of work.

The principal contractor at the Bournemouth store, Wilmott Dixon Construction Ltd, 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.