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Marks & Spencer fined over failure to properly investigate asbestos complaints

High street firm, Marks & Spencer, has been fined one million pounds after failing to properly investigate asbestos complaints. A judge has found that the lack of investigation into these asbestos claims has put customers and staff at risk of asbestos exposure for more than 10 years.

An investigatory programme carried out by the BBC found that a health and safety manager in 1998 complained to the chairman of the company, Sir Richard Greenbury, after a contractor complained that asbestos cladding was stripped using a sledgehammer and found that asbestos was ‘everywhere’ around the London Marble Arch store.

The health and safety manager, Mr William Wallace, advised the BBC that “there were minefields, asbestos minefields for the want of a better expression. You could not have guaranteed the safety of anybody, the workers, the staff, the customers; you could not have given a 100 per cent guarantee that those people were safe”.

In 2006 Mr Wallace raised concerns again after findings of the substance at the Reading store while it was being refurbished. The court heard that during the refurbishment a contractor advised staff in the store that all fans must be switched off to avoid circulating asbestos dust. The contractor told the court that when he returned to work he found the fans had been switched on as per the instructions of the managers of the Reading store to ensure that the refrigerators were kept cool.

The contractor described that on another occasion during the refurbishment of the Reading store, he saw asbestos dust falling on a staff worker and advised her to move away from the area. He explained that the shop manager “went absolutely ballistic and told us that we don’t tell his staff where to go”. The worker was then sent back to the asbestos covered area to continue with her duties.

Judge Christopher Harvey Clark found that Marks & Spencer management had failed in their duties to investigate the asbestos complaints. He stated that the attitude of management was to “turn a blind eye” as to what was happening in the stores as the asbestos work was ‘already costing the company too much money’. Judge Clark imposed a one million pound fine plus costs against the company.

A Marks & Spencer board member described the judge’s comments as “disappointing” but confirmed that the complaints at the Reading store were not dealt with properly. The board advised that they were “very sorry” and regretted the decisions which were made in not dealing with the complaints properly. Thompsons Solicitors has acted for many clients who reported using asbestos products in the construction and maintenance of Marks and Spencer stores. The firm applauds the HSE for taking this prosecution and the Courts for imposing such a hefty fine.

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