Selfridges guilty of 'unbelievable' safety errors over asbestos scare

Memo reveals store allowed staff to use unsealed areas by contaminated zone

The department store Selfridges has been guilty of "unbelievable" safety failings when dealing with asbestos at its flagship London store, resulting in staff and contractors being exposed to dust that can cause cancer, according to the Health and Safety Executive.

A confidential memo obtained by The Independent reveals the HSE's grave concerns that Selfridges sent in workmen to rip up a basement without a full survey – meaning that the men subsequently tore out asbestos-lagged pipes, releasing clouds of tiny fibres that can, if inhaled, cause death decades later from incurable tumours.

After the asbestos had been disturbed in May last year, contractors and staff were allowed to repeatedly walk through the area "to see what had happened". The room was not properly sealed off, meaning that air continued to blow around into adjoining staff locker rooms and a warehouse.

The account in the memo, written by HSE official Lisa Chappell in September last year and sent to Westminster Council, contrasts sharply with Selfridges' version of events given to this newspaper in October, when the store blamed contractors for failing to read an asbestos survey properly and insisted the area had been immediately sealed. Ms Chappell complained: "Several people from Selfridges ... and the contractor walked through the area on more than one occasion 'to see what had happened'. Unbelievable, I know."

She added that the adjoining areas continued to be used by staff even after the dangerous discovery: "The site boundary was nothing of the sort. It was an unlocked doorway with no signage, barriers or indication that workers should not progress beyond that point. Miscommunication ... allowed the work to progress, which led to exposure to amosite [brown asbestos]. The air continued to move as it [the area] was not properly sealed off."

Ms Chappell also reports being told by Selfridges' contractor Davis Langdon that the store was "putting pressure on contractors to carry out the surveys themselves", a policy that would leave "the issue of management of asbestos and maintenance issues entirely out of the equation".

Christine Watts, director of communications for Selfridges, was yesterday unable to explain the differences between her earlier account of the incident and the HSE email. However, she said in a statement that Selfridges had "made huge progress in the way we deal with asbestos", adding: "The HSE has confirmed they are happy with our processes and procedures. The safety of everyone in our building is more important than anything else and the procedures we now follow, agreed with the HSE and Westminster Council, reflect this and include communication, counselling and advice.

"Were we to receive a health-related claim from anyone who has worked on projects here, we would give this careful and appropriate consideration."

The email was released by Westminster City Council after a freedom of information request by The Independent – but not handed over by the HSE, which failed to release the document despite an almost identical request.

The HSE, which recently ran a campaign urging people to take seriously the dangers of asbestos, also reported that its main file on Selfridges had been lost. Official figures say 4,000 people a year die from asbestos-related diseases, but some estimates put the true figure as high as 10,000.

An asbestos expert said he would have expected Selfridges to deal with asbestos correctly given it was a major store and "not a corner shop".

"Retailers don't allow much time for refits and there is huge pressure to turn them round fast," he said. "Asbestos is likely to hold up the job." The source added that staff using the warehouse and locker rooms should not be overly alarmed: "I wouldn't say it's without risk, but it is a small risk."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
Steve Shaw shows Kate how to get wet behind the ears and how to align her neck
healthSteven Shaw - the 'Buddha of Breaststroke' - applies Alexander Technique to the watery sport
Arts and Entertainment
The sight of a bucking bronco in the shape of a pink penis was too much for Hollywood actor and gay rights supporter Martin Sheen, prompting him to boycott a scene in the TV series Grace and Frankie
footballShirt then goes on sale on Gumtree
Terry Sue-Patt as Benny in the BBC children’s soap ‘Grange Hill’
voicesGrace Dent on Grange Hill and Terry Sue-Patt
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010
Arts and Entertainment
Twin Peaks stars Joan Chen, Michael Ontkean, Kyle Maclachlan and Piper Laurie
tvName confirmed for third series
Cameron Jerome
footballCanaries beat Boro to gain promotion to the Premier League
Arts and Entertainment
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine