Marks & Spencer has been fined £1m for failing to protect customers, staff and workers from potential exposure to asbestos after ceiling tiles containing the deadly material fell to the floor during a store refurbishment programme.
Customers at the company’s stores in Reading and Bournemouth were put at risk of exposure to asbestos in 2006 and 2007 during the refurbishments, a court heard.
Judge Christopher Harvey Clark QC said the company was more interested in profits than planning asbestos removal.
Marks & Spencer said it had acted responsibly and was "disappointed" at the court’s findings.
The Marks & Spencer shop in Broad Street, Reading, was being refurbished when ceiling tiles containing the cancer-causing material fell to the floor.
"The response from Marks & Spencer was, in effect, to turn a blind eye to what was happening... it was already costing the company too much money," the judge told Bournemouth Crown Court.
He said the "tension" between health and safety and profit had caused the "lamentable problems" which had led to ceiling dust possibly containing asbestos falling to the shop floor when it was open.
"There was systemic failure on behalf of M&S management. There has been no hint of a proper full apology for what happened."
The judge added that the company had failed to take responsibility for the breaches.
"Asbestos is an extremely hazardous material. It's a class one human carcinogen. Common sense dictates that the utmost safety precautions are taken when removing asbestos otherwise lives will be put at risk.”
He said that people who visited the store during the work "have a right to be anxious as to whether they have breathed in asbestos fibres".
Marks & Spencer was convicted of two charges under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 of failing to ensure the health and safety of its staff and others at the Reading store in July.
It was fined £500,000 for each offence.
During the three-month trial at Winchester Crown Court, it was revealed Marks & Spencer guidance on asbestos removal was not fully followed by the contractors carrying out the refurbishments.
However, the court also heard the company had a "duty of care" to ensure the work was carried out safely.
Inhalation of asbestos, which was widely used as a building material from the 1950s until 2000, can cause cancer and other serious diseases which the Health and Safety Executive says is responsible for about 4,000 deaths a year.
In a statement, Marks & Spencer 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 utmost 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."
Patrick McGuire of Thompsons Solicitors who specialise in dealing with asbestos cases said: “It seems quite incredible that a company of Marks and Spencer’s standing adopted such a cavalier attitude to the risks of asbestos exposure.
“Perhaps even more worrying is the Judge’s conclusion that profitability and the need to minimise disruption to shoppers apparently took priority over ensuring any threat of asbestos exposure was dealt with in a responsible and professional way.
“The scale of the fine reflects the seriousness of this offence, but will do little to reassure shoppers who fear they may have breathed in asbestos fibres while shopping in what they must have assumed was perfect safety”.
If you or a family member suffers from a work related cancer, be it mesothelioma, asbestosis or pleural plaques then contact Thompsons today on 0800 0891331 and we can help you claim the compensation you deserve on a No Win No Fee basis.