HIGH street retailer John Lewis has been fined £20,000 for failing to carry out proper safety checks while refurbishing premises in Edinburgh which led to 15 construction workers potentially being exposed to asbestos.
Edinburgh Sheriff Court heard how some of the men were told to carry on touching dangerous areas with their own hands even after the alarm had been raised.
If asbestos is disturbed it can release harmful fibres into the air, which can lead to diseases such as cancer, lung scarring and serious respiratory problems.
However, the effects of the illness may not become apparent until up to 40 years later.
Between 21 and 24 July 2008, the department store at the St James Centre in Edinburgh called in contractors Morris and Spottiswood to carry out a refurbishment on management suites in the top floor of the building.
Last month the Court heard that neither of the two companies carried out the necessary checks for asbestos before they allowed the workmen to begin.
A “type three” asbestos check should have been carried out – which is described as “getting into every nook and cranny to ensure there is no risk of asbestos exposure”.
But John Lewis and their contractors only carried out a “type two”, which is only recommended for households.
Yesterday (Tue), both John Lewis and Morris and Spottiswood were sentenced to pay £20,000 each for their part in the blunder.
Procurator Fiscal Maureen McGovern said the safety checks could have been carried out by either company, and both should have ensured it had been done.
She said: “The potential risk of what could have happened is very great, and both companies did not make the suitable safety checks, nor did they ensure that the other had.”
Robert Fife, representing John Lewis, said: “My client is in no way denying the mistakes.
“This has been a learning curve for John Lewis.
“They did carry out a type two check on the area before beginning so it is not as though they neglected to do any sort of safety check – they just got it wrong.”
Craig Turnbull, representing Morris and Spottiswood, said: “The type two survey showed no asbestos and everyone really believed that.
“It was not a deliberate mistake, no one suspected anything.”
Sheriff Jarvie said the fines would have been as much as £30,000 if both parties had not pleaded guilty at the earliest possible stage.
She said: “This is a very serious and disturbing case, but no one has been hurt as a result.
“Both companies took effective and immediate action after the error occurred and neither could be blamed for being cavalier.
“And since the incident I am satisfied that new systems have been put in place to make sure this never happens again.”
The case was taken to court after a 12-month investigation carried out by officers from the City of Edinburgh Council.
There is no known cure for asbestos related diseases, and around 4,000 people die from them each year in the UK.
In a statement for John Lewis Edinburgh, Managing Director, Barry Matheson, said: “John Lewis takes today’s decision of the court seriously.
“This incident has shaped stringent new health and safety protocols, which have now been implemented at John Lewis.
“Comprehensive new training, refresher courses, clearer communication and senior management involvement has been introduced as standard across all our branches in the UK.”
A Morris and Spottiswood spokeswoman said: “We accept the Sheriff’s decision and her recognition that neither company had acted in wilful disregard.
“She further recognised that robust systems were already in place and that Morris and Spottiswood has since invested significantly in additional measures to ensure it is prevented from happening again.”
Councillor Robert Aldridge, City of Edinburgh Council environmental leader, said: “We welcome this judgement today and this case clearly highlights the serious dangers associated with asbestos and why proper checks should be done.
“Both companies failed as they put the health of others at risk. At this early stage we do not know the longer term health effects of being exposed to asbestos. Our officers will not hesitate to investigate businesses that expose other people to health risks with a view to prosecution.”
REPORT: Christine Lavelle