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M&S and two contractors guilty of safety failings

Retail giant Marks and Spencer has been convicted of putting members of the public, staff and construction workers at risk of exposure to asbestos-containing materials during the refurbishment of one of its stores.
The work was carried out in 2006 on the shop in Reading. M&S was acquitted of the same charge at another store in Bournemouth.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) prosecuted Marks and Spencer, as well as Willmott Dixon Construction and PA Realisations (formerly Pectel).
Winchester Crown Court heard construction workers at the Reading and Bournemouth stores removed asbestos-containing materials that were present in the ceiling tiles and elsewhere.

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 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 M&S 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, 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, 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 hearing, 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.'

Marks and Spencer plc, of Waterside House, North Wharf Road, Westminster, was found guilty of breaching section 2(1), relating to their own staff, and section 3(1), relating to members of the public and other workers, of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974. These charges relate to the Broad Street Reading store and date from 24 April to 13 November, 2006.

Hertfordshire-based Willmott Dixon Construction was found guilty of contravening sections 2(1) and 3(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 between 5 February, 2007 and 28 February, 2007. These breaches took place at the M&S store in Commercial Road, Bournemouth.

Manchester-based PA Realisations was found guilty of contravening regulation 15 of the Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations 2002 between 5 May 2006 and 12 November 2006 at the M&S store on Broad Street, Reading.
At an earlier hearing, Styles & Wood, of Manchester Road, Altrincham, Cheshire, pleaded guilty to contravening sections 2(1) and 3(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974. These charges relate to offences committed between 24 April and 13 November, 2006 at the M&S store on Broad Street, Reading.

The guilty companies will be sentenced on 26 September, 2011.

Asbestos is the biggest single cause of work-related deaths in the UK, with an estimated 4,000 people dying every year.
20 July 2011

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