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."