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M&S fined £1 million for asbestos breaches

27 Sep 11 Retailer Marks & Spencer has been fined £1m for failing to protect customers and employees from risk of exposure to asbestos during refurbishment at one of its stores.

Three of its contractors were also fined for asbestos offences during work carried out on shops in Reading and Bournemouth between 2006 and 2007.

The retailer was found guilty in July 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.

It was fined £500,000 for each offence and ordered to pay a further £600,000 in costs.

Judge Christopher Harvey Clark QC said that the company was more interested in making profits than properly planning for the removal of asbestos.

“There was systemic failure on behalf of M&S management. There has been no hint of a proper full apology for what happened,” he said.

Three contractors also guilty of asbestos safety breaches were also fined.

Willmott Dixon Construction Ltd, of Hertfordshire, was found guilty in July of contravening the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 at Marks & Spencer’s Bournemouth store. It was fined £50,000, plus £75,000 costs.

PA Realisations Ltd (formerly Pectel Ltd) was found guilty in July of contravening Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations 2002 at the Reading store. As the company is insolvent it was fined a nominal £200.

Styles & Wood Limited, of Manchester Road, Altrincham, Cheshire, which had pleaded guilty at an earlier hearing in January 2010 to contravening the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 at the Reading store, was fined £100,000 and ordered to pay costs of £40,000.

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The fines were handed down at Bournemouth Crown Court.

During the three month trial which ended in July 2011, Winchester Crown Court heard that 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 & Spencer, did not allocate sufficient time and space for the removal of 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.

HSE alleged that the retailer failed to ensure that work at the Reading store 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.

PA Realisations 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.

Styles & Wood, principal contractor at the Reading store, admitted that it should not have permitted a method of asbestos removal which did not allow for adequate sealing of the ceiling void, which resulted in risks to contractors on site.

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

After the sentencing, Richard Boland, HSE's southern head of operations for construction, said: "This outcome should act as a wake-up call that any refurbishment programmes involving asbestos-containing materials must be properly resourced, both in terms of time and money - no matter what.

"Large retailers and other organisations who carry out major refurbishment works must give contractors enough time and space within the store to carry out the works safely.   Where this is not done, and construction workers and the public are put at risk, HSE will not hesitate in taking robust enforcement action."

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