The “disturbing of asbestos” whenever a refurbishment is carried out at a premises continues to be a regular occurrence. Not only in schools, hospitals, local authority buildings, public amenities, council housing estates, as well as at disused factory grounds or landfill sites. It’s reasonable to say that general asbestos awareness to the true extent of its widespread use receives another wake-up call whenever the materials are discovered in another ‘everyday’ location. One where ordinary employees and other members of the public could have been exposed to the potentially deadly fibre dust – a so-called ‘mystery’ source of exposure – which develops into an asbestosis disease, or even the fatal mesothelioma cancer, 30 to 40 years later.

Recently, a building design and shop-fitting company, along with a licensed asbestos contractor, were prosecuted for breaches of The Control of Asbestos Regulations 2012 following a disturbance of asbestos during a jewellery shop refurbishment in Leeds. An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found a failure to provide the relevant information regarding the presence of on-site asbestos and a Prohibition Notice was also served for the lack of an appropriate premises survey.

Extent of the historical problem is recognised by the retail industry

Both HSE and the professional building industry repeatedly warn that any building constructed (or renovated) in Britain up to the final ban on using white asbestos as insulation at the end of 1999 is likely to contain asbestos. Nevertheless, cases of this kind where there has been a failure to carry out the mandatory procedures before and during a refurbishment are not unusual, and are regularly reported. However, another worrying aspect of the above case is the regular discovery of asbestos in everyday locations – such as high street stores – where ordinary workers and members of the public could have been innocently exposed.

The extent of the historical problem is recognised by the retail industry. In September 2013, the Retail Asbestos Working Group (RAWG) published a document entitled ‘The Management of Asbestos Containing Materials in the Retail Sector’, aimed at promoting good-practice by providing guidance to retailers and site contractors in carrying out their duties under the Control of Asbestos Regulations (CAR) 2012. The RAWG guidance was developed in association with the HSE, the British Retail Consortium (BRC) and the well-known brands of ASDA, Boots UK, Land Securities and Marks & Spencer.

Dust from the ceiling falling on a shop assistant stacking shelves

A year later, a former Marks and Spencer store was discovered to possess significant quantities of AIB (asbestos insulating board) during a refurbishment. Customers and staff at the London Marble Arch store were warned that they may have been put at risk from asbestos contamination over the previous ten years at least. When renovations were carried out in 1998, it was reported how cladding that had been stripped with a sledgehammer revealed asbestos was “everywhere”. Over the previous 20 years, asbestos has been uncovered at a number of Marks & Spencer stores. In 2006, alarms were raised at M&S stores in Plymouth, Bournemouth and at the Reading branch where during refurbishments, a witness described seeing dust from the ceiling falling on a shop assistant stacking shelves, which later “would be covered in asbestos dust”.

Other well-known retail outlets include the former high street giant BHS, where a review of some 50 stores in 2015 reported that many had fallen into disrepair. One news source claimed that some of the stores had water pouring through the roof and floors, and were closed for two to three years because they were found to be “riddled” with asbestos. Further back still, in 2004, two Devon branches of the much-loved high street chain Woolworths, which closed all its stores in 2009, were reported to contain asbestos fibres spread all over the stock and shelving when a contractor came to remove asbestos ceiling tiles.

In just the last decade alone, other major high street chains were found to contain asbestos, include Top Shop in Liverpool and John Lewis in Edinburgh in 2008, the Co-op, Manchester in 2007, Blacks in London, 2005 and the Birmingham branch of House of Fraser in 1997. There is no way of knowing just how many innocent staff or customers may have been regularly exposed to the deadly dust in any of the British high street stores over the last 50 or 60 years or will eventually be diagnosed with an asbestos-related disease from a “mystery” source of exposure.

Mesothelioma caused by an unidentified source of asbestos exposure

In July 2014, the European Economic and Social Committee recommended the “total removal of all used asbestos and all asbestos containing products”, which was to be a “priority target of the European Union.” A year later, The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Occupational Safety and Health released a report focusing on the need to introduce comprehensive measures for a planned removal of all asbestos still remaining in every property in Britain by 2035.

Britain has still one of the world’s highest number of people who die from mesothelioma. Latest available HSE figures show that more than 2,540 people now die each year from the incurable cancer, with coroners reports not infrequently stating that the cause was either an industrial disease, i.e. most likely mesothelioma caused by an unidentified source of asbestos exposure. How many were possibly the result of contact while working in a retail store?