Leading UK Retailer Convicted in Asbestos Case

Marks and Spencer plc will be sentenced Sept. 26 after being found guilty along with contractors of violating asbestos control regulations during reconstruction work.

One of Britain's biggest retailers, Marks and Spencer plc, and two contractor firms have been convicted of putting workers and members of the public at risk of exposure to asbestos-containing materials during reconstruction projects in 2006 and 2007. The Health and Safety Executive prosecuted the three companies, claiming they failed to take required precautions.

Editor's note: Marks and Spencer plc was convicted in connection with the work done at a store in Reading but acquitted in connection with the Bournemouth store, solicitor Claire Lamont of Eversheds LLP, which represented the retailer, pointed out in a July 19 e-mail to OH&S Editor Jerry Laws.

At the Reading store, defendant PA Realisations Ltd failed to prevent asbestos material from penetrating to the shop floor, while at the Bournemouth store, defendant Wilmott Dixon Construction Ltd failed to plan, manage, and monitor the 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, the agency said.

"This prosecution exposed serious failures by Marks and Spencer and its contractors that we hope others will learn from," said HSE Principal Inspector Charles Gilby. "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 organizations engaging in programs of refurbishment, that they must allow enough time and resource to carry out work without endangering anyone."

Marks and Spencer plc was found guilty of breaching section 2(1), relating to its own employees, and section 3(1), relating to members of the public and other workers, of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974, in connection with the Reading store work from April 24 to Nov. 13, 2006. Willmott Dixon Construction Ltd of Hertfordshire was found guilty of violating sections 2(1) and 3(1) between Feb. 5 and Feb. 28, 2007, at the Bournemouth store. PA Realisations Ltd of Manchester was found guilty of violating regulation 15 of the Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations 2002 between May 5 and Nov. 12, 2006, at the Reading store. Another company, Styles & Wood Limited of Cheshire had pleaded guilty to violating sections 2(1) and 3(1) between April 24 and Nov. 13, 2006, at the Reading store, and Clarence Contractors Ltd, which was in liquidation, pleaded guilty in early 2010 and was fined for violating the asbestos control regulations.

Sentencing is set for Sept. 26.

HSE says asbestos is the leading cause of work-related deaths in the United Kingdom, with an estimated 4,000 people dying each year as a result of past exposure to it.

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