Retail giant Arcadia has been sentenced, alongside a shop fitting firm, after construction workers were exposed to potentially deadly asbestos fibres at a Topshop store in Liverpool.
The Health & Safety Executive prosecuted Arcadia Group and the principal contractor for the site, Vincents (Shopfitters), following an investigation.
Liverpool Magistrates' Court heard that workers were exposed to asbestos fibres as they removed air conditioning, sprinklers and other equipment next to ceiling beams, which had previously been coated with sprayed asbestos.
The refurbishment work was allowed to go ahead despite a survey, carried out before the project started, identifying asbestos as being present in the building on Church Street in Liverpool One in the city centre.
Attempts were initially made to seal off access to the first floor of the building on 9 June 2008, when the sprayed asbestos on the ceiling beams was disturbed. But work was allowed to continue elsewhere in the six-storey building.
A total of 45 construction workers were eventually asked to stop work on 20 June 2008 after a contractor alerted HSE that the contamination had spread outside the sealed area.
Vincents (Shopfitters), of Newton Street, Norwich, was fined £10,000 and ordered to pay £10,769 in costs. Arcadia Group, of Berners Street in London, was fined £5,000 with costs of £10,769 on 17 March 2011. Both fines were the maximum that could be issued by the magistrates' court.
Warren Pennington, the investigating inspector at HSE, said: "It is shocking that workers were exposed to deadly asbestos fibres, and that the refurbishment work was allowed to happen without the proper control measures in place.
"Neither company took adequate action to prevent workers being exposed despite a survey alerting them that asbestos was present in the building. The refurbishment work on the first floor was likely to disturb the asbestos and so a licensed specialist contractor should have carried it out.
"Instead, up to 45 individuals, who were working in the building, now have to live with the knowledge that they may become ill with a life-threatening lung disease."
Vincents (Shopfitters) pleaded guilty to breaching Regulations 22(1)(a) and 23(2) of the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2007 for failing to properly plan, manage and monitor the project, and for not identifying the risks from asbestos and taking action to address them.
Arcadia Group admitted breaching Regulation 16(a) of the same regulations by failing to prevent work starting on the site until Vincents had produced a construction plan, outlining how if would deal with the asbestos.
Asbestos is the biggest single cause of work-related deaths in the UK, with an estimated 4,000 people dying every year.
The ceiling beams in the Topshop store would originally have been sprayed with asbestos to protect the building in a fire, before the dangers of the material were widely known. The asbestos only became a threat when it was disturbed and its fibres were released into the air.