Two workers at the London department store Selfridges were exposed to asbestos during a refurbishment, The Independent can reveal.
Asbestos fibres – released when the material is disturbed, through breaking or drilling for instance – can be lethal. Significant exposure can lead to the development of the incurable and fatal cancer mesothelioma or other asbestos-related diseases later in life.
The workers, who were employed by a sub-contractor, were refitting staff changing rooms in the basement of the Oxford Street shop in May 2007 when the incident happened.
After Westminster City Council received a safety complaint about the incident, officials met Selfridges representatives "to discuss shortfalls" in the firm's handling of asbestos in the building. A new procedure for dealing with the material was put in place.
Nearly 18 months later, Selfridges is completing a survey of all the asbestos in the building. The council accepted that surveying the store more quickly would be too costly and impractical.
Official estimates put the death toll from asbestos-related diseases in Britain at 4,000, but some experts estimate the figure is as high as 10,000.
A spokeswoman for Westminster council, responding to a request for information, said: "We received a complaint about works carried out at Selfridges on 23 May 2007, when contractors were exposed to asbestos while removing pipe lagging."
"Concerned by what we heard, we arranged to meet with Selfridges to discuss shortfalls in the way they surveyed and managed asbestos removal and as a result, the store implemented a comprehensive database system for dealing with asbestos. They are still using this system and our environmental health team is happy with it."
In its survey, Selfridges was "concentrating on the areas with highest risk", the council said.
On Monday, The Independent revealed that Selfridges' main windows had been boarded up after asbestos panels were discovered. The company insisted that it was following correct safety procedures.
Selfridges' director of communications, Christine Watts, said that before the May 2007 safety breach, the store had surveyed the area in which the two men were to be working.
The survey "did highlight asbestos in the identified area," she said, "but unfortunately the workmen didn't follow the survey so the asbestos was discovered in the way described" – unexpectedly. The area had then been sealed. However, Ms Watts added: "We did, as you would expect in any situation, discuss with HSE [the health and safety executive] our procedures and so on and we have made some improvements. I think that reflects what Westminster are saying: while they may have had concerns a year ago, they are happy now."
The Independent has been leaked a separate complaint letter sent by a different contractor, Gordonson Fire Protection, referring to a "second incident in which asbestos has been discovered", also in May 2007.
"We will not start any works on site without an asbestos survey being carried out, the report being available to us and the area clear and the site safe to work in," says the letter, from John Martin. Mr Martin declined to comment yesterday.
Ms Watts said that Gordonson Fire Protection had been working in an area on the store's first floor which had been surveyed for asbestos, but the contractors "went beyond the line of the project, we believe following some pipes, and discovered some asbestos there". The area was immediately sealed and the HSE informed.
Asbestos experts expressed dismay at the plight of the workers involved. Robin Howie, an occupational hygienist who specialises in asbestos, said: "If that lagging was removed by ordinary members of staff without respirators and protective clothing, it could be a significant exposure."
Jason Addy, an academic and campaigner whose grandfather, Ivan, died of an asbestos-related disease, said that uncertainty was one of the worst things that those exposed to asbestos had to face. "It's important not to scaremonger, to say 'one fibre will kill', but it is a very cruel lottery. It is a waiting game, a ticking time-bomb."
Estimated number of asbestos-related deaths in Britain each year.