Retail giant Marks & Spencer (M&S) has been fined £1 million for putting both members of staff and the public at risk of exposure to asbestos.
Bournemouth Crown Court found the retailer and three of its contractors guilty of the offence during the refurbishment of two of its stores in Reading and Bournemouth.
The case was brought by the Health & Safety Executive (HSE), against M&S, Willmott Dixon Construction, PA Realisations (formerly Pectel) and Styles & Wood.
The latter pleaded guilty at an earlier court hearing in January 2010 while the remaining companies were found guilty in July this year.
On top of the fine, M&S was ordered to pay costs of £600,000, while Willmott Dixon Construction was fined £50,000 and ordered to pay costs of £75,000, PA Realisations was fined £200 and Styles & Wood was fined £100,000 and ordered to pay costs of £40,000.
HSE points out that asbestos is the biggest single cause of work-related deaths in the UK, with an estimated 4,000 people dying every year. Richard Boland, HSE’s Southern Head of Operations for Construction, welcomed the ruling.
“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,” he explained.
The court heard that contractors were forced to work overnight to remove asbestos from the store in Broad Street, Reading, as the retailer did not allocate sufficient time and space for the removal of asbestos-containing materials.
HSE outlines details of how to ensure the safe removal of the toxin and Boland added that retailers have a strong responsibility to adhere to these guidelines.
“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,” he commented.
“Where this is not done, and construction workers and the public are put at risk, HSE will not hesitate in taking robust enforcement action.”
M&S expressed its disappointment at the ruling, though admitted it will not appeal.
A spokesman said: “We are very disappointed with the result of this case, as we believe that we have always acted responsibly and with a safety-first attitude.
“The health and safety of our employees, customers and contractors is of the upmost importance to us.
“We hope to continue to work closely with the HSE in the future to ensure that strict regulations and safety standards relating to asbestos are maintained.”
This is the second time in a week that the high-street stalwart has faced legal action, following claims of victory by flower retailer Interflora over a European Court of Justice ruling relating to an ongoing trademark dispute.