Retailer and two of its contractors convicted for putting public in danger

Marks and Spencer 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 a store.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) prosecuted Marks and Spencer, Willmott Dixon Construction Ltd and PA Realisations Ltd. The trial related to work carried out between 2006 and 2007 on a shop in Reading.

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

The court heard that Marks and Spencer 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 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. 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.

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 company will be sentenced on 26 September 2011.