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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
England's women celebrate after their 3rd place play-off win against Germany
Women's World CupFara Williams converts penalty to secure victory and bronze medals
News
newsHillary Clinton comments on viral Humans of New York photo of gay teenager
Arts and Entertainment
The gang rape scene in the Royal Opera’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s Guillaume Tell has caused huge controversy
music
Sport
wimbledonScot will face Ivo Karlovic next
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
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

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Spanish Speaking

£17000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - German Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Japanese Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are fluent in Japanese a...

Recruitment Genius: Graphic Designer - Immediate Start

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test