The Million-Pound Asbestos Case


A reminder to all that even the largest and most prestigious firms can fall foul of the law came recently when Marks and Spencer were given a massive fine (£1 million plus £600,000 costs) for endangering customers, their workforce and the workers of their contractors, by potentially exposing them to asbestos in two stores in Reading and Bournemouth that were undergoing refurbishments.

The HSE reminds us that asbestos is the UK’s single greatest cause of deaths related to work. It is estimated that some 4,000 people die from this cause every year, despite the phasing out of asbestos as a building material.

Other companies that were implicated and received fines included Styles & Wood Ltd (£100,000 plus costs of £40,000) and Willmott Dixon Construction Ltd (£50,000 with costs of £75,000). It should be noted that the latter is seeking permission to appeal against its conviction.

Unsafe Working Practices

Winchester Crown Court was told that asbestos-containing materials in the ceiling tiles and other locations were taken away by contractors.

The problem was that M&S failed to give enough space or time to remove the dangerous materials. Despite the company having produced in-house guidance on asbestos removal, this was not followed properly by its contractors in these major projects.

Contractors operated overnight in enclosed shop areas, trying to remove small sections of asbestos before store opening hours each day.

It was held that these practices failed to meet the appropriate legal and best practice standards. The Reading store sub-contractor did not minimise the spread of asbestos to the shop floor. Areas that had been cleaned became re-contaminated due to air movements from the ceiling void above, and also due to a low work standard.

The principal Reading contractor admitted it should not have permitted a system that did not allow for adequate void sealing, which put on-site workers at risk.

At Bournemouth the principal contractor did not properly plan, manage or monitor the asbestos removal work. Areas of the store that had not been surveyed extensively presented the possibility that asbestos would be disturbed by operatives.


The lesson is clear: anyone involved in the extremely hazardous business of asbestos removal must be allowed sufficient time, have the right training, and be generally supplied with the correct resources to avoid any risk to life or health.

This message applies to clients, no matter how large and possessing in-house health and safety professionals; to principal contractors; and to smaller sub-contractors. In this case a sub-contractor went into administration soon after the events in question. The fall-out from cases like this can be fatal to a small business.

Health and Safety Consultants

McCormack Benson Health & Safety present the ideal solution for companies that cannot afford the luxury of having their own specialist staff. When carrying out construction works, MBHS can act as CDM Co-ordinators, pulling together the designers and all other parties and fulfilling the requirements of health & safety legislation through the project.
For asbestos, they provide specialist training and health & safety consultancy.