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January 6, 2011

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Co-operative fined £30k for supermarket asbestos exposure

Customers and staff at a supermarket in Oldham were exposed to asbestos when a workman smashed a ceiling panel containing the hazardous substance.

In December 2007, SF Fire Protection Services Ltd was contracted to install a new fire alarm at a Co-operative store in Market Square, Royton. During the work an engineer broke a ceiling panel in order to fit a cable to the alarm. The worker was unaware that the panel contained brown asbestos and the debris fell on to the shop floor. Two of the store’s employees helped clear the debris and left it in an open bag at the rear of the store for two weeks.

Three months later Oldham Council received a waiver application from a separate contractor who was carrying out unrelated work at the store. The waiver allows asbestos work to be carried out without the required 14 days prior notification. An environmental health officer visited the store to consider the application and found traces of asbestos on top of a food cabinet and inside a freezer. It was at this point when he was informed about the incident during the installation of the fire alarm.

During his investigation he learned that the Co-operative was aware that asbestos was present in the ceiling as it had a record of an asbestos survey, which was carried out before it took over the store in 2007. However this information was not passed on to SF Fire Protection Services before the work started and the engineer had not been given asbestos awareness training.

The Co-operative appeared at Minshull Street Crown Court in Manchester on 17 December and pleaded guilty to breaching s2(1) of the HSWA 1974. It was fined £30,000 with costs of £7368.

SF Fire Protection Services attended the same hearing and pleaded guilty to breaching s2(1) and s3(1) of the same Act. It was fined a total of £12,000 and ordered to pay £7360 in costs.

The Co-operative told the court that this was an isolated incident and it feels that it has adequate safety procedures in place. A spokesperson from the group told SHP: “The safety of our customers and staff is of the utmost importance to us. We always endeavour to comply with, and go beyond, health and safety requirements in all our stores, and would like to apologise to anyone who has been caused anxiety following this incident.

“We would like to reassure our customers that we called in a qualified asbestos removal contractor as soon as this incident came to light, and tests showed that asbestos levels were well within safe exposure limits.

“We believe we were badly let down by our contractor who, without our control or knowledge, sent a fire-alarm installer who was not adequately trained and who did not have adequate asbestos awareness.”

In mitigation, SF Fire Protection Services accepted that it had failed to properly plan the work. It has subsequently appointed a health and safety professional who has delivered asbestos awareness training to all of the firm’s engineers.

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