A heavy fine imposed on Marks and Spencer for putting its staff and the public at risk of exposure to asbestos has embarrassingly coincided with the company winning a prestigious Responsible Retailer of the Year award.
M&S picked up the accolade this week at the Oracle World Retail Awards, which took place during the annual World Retail Congress in Berlin. The event brings together thousands of the world’s retail leaders for high-level debate with international policy makers.
However, as worst possible timing would have it, news broke more or less simultaneously that the company has been fined £1m and ordered to pay costs of £600,000 relating to asbestos health and safety breaches during the refurbishment of its Reading and Bournemouth stores. Three of its contractors were also fined.
Asbestos is the biggest single cause of work-related deaths in the UK, with an estimated 4,000 people dying every year.
During the three-month trial Winchester Crown Court heard that between 2006 and 2007 construction workers at the two stores removed asbestos-containing materials in the ceiling tiles and elsewhere. But M&S failed to allow enough time and space to get rid of them at the Reading store, and the contractors had to work overnight in enclosures on the shop floor, with the aim of completing small areas of asbestos removal before the shop opened to the public each day.
M&S had produced its own guidance on how asbestos should be removed, and that was followed inappropriately by the contractors.
At the Bournemouth store, the contractor failed to plan, manage and monitor removal of asbestos-containing materials and did not prevent the possibility of asbestos being disturbed by its workers.
After the sentencing, Richard Boland of the Health and Safety Executive – which brought the prosecution – said: “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.”