Revealed: workers at Selfridges were exposed to asbestos

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."

4,000

Estimated number of asbestos-related deaths in Britain each year.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
tv
News
Katie Hopkins appearing on 'This Morning' after she purposefully put on 4 stone.
peopleKatie Hopkins breaks down in tears over weight gain challenge
Life and Style
fashionModel of the moment shoots for first time with catwalk veteran
Life and Style
fashionAngelina Jolie's wedding dressed revealed
News
i100
Sport
Alexis Sanchez, Radamel Falcao, Diego Costa and Mario Balotelli
footballRadamel Falcao and Diego Costa head record £835m influx
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'
tv
Extras
indybest 9 best steam generator irons
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman topped the list of the 30 most influential females in broadcasting
tv
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
Arts and Entertainment
Danish director Lars von Trier
tvEnglish-language series with 'huge' international cast set for 2016
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Project Officer (HMP Brixton Mentoring Project)

£24,000 per annum pro rata (21 hours per week): Belong: Work as part of a cutt...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £45000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Key featuresA highly motivated ...

DT teachers required for supply roles in Cambridge

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: DT teachers required ...

Secondary supply teachers required in Wisbech

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Secondary teachers ne...

Day In a Page

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering