Retail giant Marks & Spencer was fined £1 million today for failing to protect customers, staff and workers from potential exposure to asbestos during refurbishment at one of its stores.
The management was found to have been more concerned about the works being "unsightly" and "interfering with the shopping experience" of customers than the cancer-causing material.
It was told by Judge Christopher Harvey Clark QC that the company, which he described as a "household name" was more interested in making profits out of its Reading store than properly planning for the removal of asbestos.
He said the "tension" between health and safety and profit had caused the "lamentable problems" at Reading which had led to ceiling possibly containing asbestos falling to the shop floor when it was open.
"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.
"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 said that the plc has 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."
The work at Reading was part of a £1.3 billion refurbishment of M&S stores UK wide, the court heard.
M&S employed contractors who removed asbestos present in ceiling tiles and elsewhere during the work at the store in Reading and also at Bournemouth, Dorset, between 2006 and 2007.
The three-month trial at Winchester Crown Court was told M&S guidance on asbestos removal was not fully followed by the contractors during the major refurbishments but M&S had a "duty of care" to ensure the work was carried out safely.
The store was found guilty in July 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. it was fined £500,000 for each offence.
Willmott Dixon Construction Ltd, of Hertfordshire, was found guilty of contravening the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 at the Bournemouth store.
And Manchester-based company PA Realisations Ltd (formerly Pectel Ltd), was found guilty of contravening Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations 2002 at the Reading store.
At an earlier hearing, Styles & Wood Limited, of Manchester Road, Altrincham, Cheshire, pleaded guilty to contravening the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 relating to the Reading store.
Nicholas Haggan QC for M&S said that there was no evidence of "significant" amounts of asbestos contamination at the stores.
M&S was said to have made £500 million of taxable profits last year.
M&S was also ordered to pay £600,000 in prosecution costs.
Styles & Wood Limited was fined £100,000, and £40,000 in costs, for its breaches.
Willmott Dixon was fined £50,000, and £75,000 costs, because it should have monitored the asbestos situation at the Bournemouth store but the situation was not as bad there as at Reading.
PA Realisations Ltd (formerly Pectel Ltd) was fined a nominal £200 because the company is insolvent.
Charles Gilby, principal inspector for the Health and Safety Executive, said after the case: "These were very serious offences and it is important that when stores are refurbished, large retailers and their contractors must provide and utilise the resources necessary to allow the work to be carried out safely.
"Asbestos is the biggest single cause of work-related deaths in the UK, with an estimated 4,000 people dying every year. There is no known cure for mesothelioma, so employers must do everything they can to prevent exposure to asbestos in order to protect the lives of workers, staff and the general public."
In a statement, M&S 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."
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