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M&S Guilty of exposing shoppers to asbestos risk.

Retail group Marks & Spencer has been found guilty of putting its customers as well as staff and construction workers at risk of asbestos exposure at its shops in Reading and Bournemouth.

Also found guilty were two of its contractors, Willmott Dixon Construction Ltd and PA Realisations Ltd (formerly Pectel Ltd), who breached safety regulations when removing asbestos-containing materials during the refurbishment of the two stores.

The work was carried out between 2006 and 2007 on shops in Reading and Bournemouth.

In the case, brought by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), Winchester Crown Court heard how construction workers at the two stores removed asbestos-containing materials that were present in the ceiling tiles and elsewhere.

During the 15-week trial, the court heard that, as client, Marks & Spencer did not allocate sufficient time and space for the removal of the asbestos-containing materials at the Reading store. The contractors had to work overnight in enclosures on the shop floor, with the aim of completing small areas of asbestos removal before the shop opened to the public each day.

The HSE alleged that the retailer failed to ensure that work at Reading complied with the appropriate minimum standards set out in legislation and approved codes of practice. The company had produced its own guidance on how asbestos should be removed inside its stores, and the court heard that this guidance was followed by contractors inappropriately during major refurbishment.

The contractor, PA Realisations Ltd, failed to reduce to a minimum the spread of asbestos to the Reading shop floor. Witnesses said that areas cleaned by the company were re-contaminated by air moving through the void between the ceiling tiles and the floor above, and by poor standards of work.

The principal contractor at the Bournemouth store, Wilmott Dixon Construction Ltd, failed to plan, manage and monitor removal of asbestos-containing materials. It did not prevent the possibility of asbestos being disturbed by its workers in areas that had not been surveyed extensively.

According to the HSE, asbestos is the biggest single cause of work-related deaths in the UK, with an estimated 4,000 people dying every year.

The guilty companies will be sentenced on 26 September 2011.

After the hearing, HSE principal inspector Charles Gilby said: "This prosecution exposed serious failures by Marks & Spencer and its contractors that we hope others will learn from. This verdict is a wake-up call for the retail industry. Client accountability and responsibility is at the heart of this case, because asbestos can and does kill.

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