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
Seth Rollins cashes in his Money in the Bank contract to win the WWE World Heavyweight Championship
WWERollins win the WWE World Heavyweight title in one of the greatest WrestleMania's ever seen
Arts and Entertainment
Louis Theroux: By Reason of Insanity takes him behind the bars again
tvBy Reason of Insanity, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap
videoThe political parody genius duo strike again with new video
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark, TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
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: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor