Household name retailer, M&S, prosecuted for Asbestos breaches

In January 2010 the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) initiated criminal proceedings against Marks and Spencer plc for asbestos-related breaches at shops in Bournemouth, Plymouth and Reading. Amidst a flurry of media interest, the high profile Trial has now commenced.

The retail giant is accused of failing to protect customers, staff and workers from the possibility of being exposed to asbestos during major refurbishment works at the stores between 2004 and 2006. Two of its contractors also face charges, however the prosecutor this week said that Marks & Spencer could not shift the blame on to its contractors as it had a "duty of care" to ensure the work was carried out safely.

Asbestos was widely used as a building material from the 1950s, and a large number of premises still contain some form of asbestos. HSE statistics suggest that around 4,000 people in Great Britain die every year from asbestos-related diseases, making asbestos the single greatest cause of work-related deaths.

Asbestos exposure may also give rise to a civil claim in negligence and/or breach of statutory duty for personal injury. Based on the average cost of claims, the estimated future cost to the UK insurance industry of asbestos-related claims is £4-£10 billion.

The Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006 consolidate previous Regulations covering the prohibition of asbestos, the control of asbestos at work and asbestos licensing. They also contain several new provisions imposing duties to manage asbestos in non-domestic buildings. Non-compliance can lead to prosecution, and if found guilty the maximum penalty is an unlimited fine and/or a 2 year prison sentence.

These sobering statistics highlight the importance of employers and other duty holders properly managing the risks from asbestos in non-domestic buildings.

Marks & Spencer have pleaded not guilty to each of the breaches. The Trial is expected to last 15 weeks.