Back in September, iconic British brand, Marks & Spencer, was fined one million pounds for failing to protect its customers, staff and workers from potential exposure to asbestos during the refurbishment of one of its stores. How could they make such an apparently foolish and dangerous mistake, the industry asked? Clearly it’s not necessarily the smaller businesses that let health and safety slip –there are times when even the big guns can get it wrong.

Asbestos is potentially deadly – if people are exposed to the cancerous material, it could result in death. The HSE believe that asbestos is the biggest single cause of work-related deaths in the UK, with an estimated 4,000 people dying every year. There is no known cure for mesothelioma, the cancer that develops when a victim is exposed to asbestos, so it should be treated seriously and safeguarding against it made a priority for businesses that are at risk.

The three month trial at Winchester Crown Court found that Marks & Spencer’s guidance on asbestos removal was not fully followed by their contractors during the major refurbishments. When a store is being refurbished, retailers and their contractors have a responsibility to make sure the work is carried out safely. In this case, whilst Marks and Spencer may have given the correct direction to the contractor, it clearly wasn’t managed correctly. So it’s worth remembering that your business is accountable for the actions of contractors on your site.

A lack of health and safety planning meant ceiling dust containing asbestos fell on the shop floor when it was open to customers, putting them and the shop floor employees at significant risk. This health and safety lapse shocked the industry, as the management team was found to be more interested in making profits out of its Reading store than properly planning for the removal of asbestos. The staff were concerned about the works being unsightly and interfering with the shopping experience of customers, rather than the nature of the dangerous material.

A simple risk assessment can help employers consider the possible hazards in their place of work and then determine what precautions need to be put in place to prevent people from being harmed. There are five general areas to consider in a risk assessment:

  •  What are the hazards?
  •  Who might be harmed and how?
  • What are you already doing?
  • What further action is necessary?
  • Who should take action?

However, this case shows that simple risk assessments alone aren’t always enough – companies should look to work closely with contractors to ensure a safe environment is maintained and the risks are addressed.

In this instance, the store was found guilty of two charges under the Health and Safety at Work Act for failing to ensure the health and safety of its staff and others at the store. As a result, it was fined £500,000 for each offence. This might seem to have a modest impact on the finances of a company like Marks and Spencer. But it could be make or break for a smaller company that failed to acknowledge the risks involved and arguably the reputational damage to the valuable Marks and Spencer brand is more costly than the fine.





Richard Evens, Commercial Training Director, St John Ambulance

Richard is Commercial Marketing Director at St John Ambulance, the nation's leading first aid organisation and market leader in workplace first aid training. Responsible for training programmes and educational standards, Richard has been involved in consultation with the HSE since the early development of new guidance for the content and structure of workplace first aid training. He has liaised widely with the HSE and other stakeholders to apply the collective expertise in first aid to the new guidance, becoming a board member of the First Aid at Work Council which was created during this process.

Before joining the charity sector 10 years ago in a retail development role for Oxfam, Richard worked in marketing and logistical roles with Shell and Total Oil. He lives in north west London spending time with his family, trying to keep up with two energetic young children.