Marks & Spencer has admitted negligently exposing to asbestos a woman who worked in two of its stores.
Janice Allen, 53, who was a supervisor in the men’s and women’s clothes sections of M&S from 1978-87, first at its main Oxford Street store in London and then in Uxbridge, has been diagnosed with mesothelioma, a lethal form of lung cancer caused by inhaling asbestos fibres. There is no cure, and she has been given months to live. M&S has agreed in the high court to pay “significant” damages after judgment in her favour in May. M&S admitted breaching its legal duty of care .
Allen’s lawyer, Harminder Bains, of Leigh Day, said there could be many people suffering asbestos-related diseases caused by owners of premises failing to comply with legal safety procedures.
Mesothelioma, cancer of the lung’s outer lining, can take decades to develop and causes a drawn-out, painful death.
Allen, married with two children in their 20s, said she was “devastated and distraught” that she was dying from a cancer she had never heard of, from inhaling asbestos that she did not know existed in the stores.
“I feel betrayed by Marks & Spencer. The company used to portray itself like a family; they engendered loyalty. I worked very hard, I met my husband there. But to think beneath the surface they were exposing people to deadly risks, to asbestos, it’s so cynical. We were looking forward to enjoying life in the coming years; instead I have to face the fact I will not live to see my grandchildren.”
Asbestos was considered a miracle fire-proof building material and widely used in construction after the second world war until the 1970s, when it was recognised to be lethal. Successive legislation has since required the removal of asbestos.
In 2013 Steve Rowe, an M&S executive director, told a BBC documentary: “If you look back into the 60s, 70s and 80s, it is possible that staff were exposed to asbestos in our stores.” But M&S’s policies relating to asbestos had become “industry leading” since then.
In 2011, M&S was fined £1m, for unsafe handling of asbestos at its Reading store. The judge Harvey Clarke QC said managers had been cavalier in not closing the store while the work was ongoing, “to keep the trading profit as high as reasonably possible”.
Allen worked in the Marble Arch store and then at Uxbridge for a total of nine years after leaving school at 18. In the summer of 2012, 25 years after leaving Marks and Spencer, she felt agonising pain near her ribs, and in April 2013 she was diagnosed with mesothelioma. Given M&S’s history, her lawyer Bains believed it was likely that Allen had been exposed to asbestos while working there.
William Wallace, a health and safety officer who worked at the Reading store in 2006, informed the HSE of the criminally unsafe work there and became a witness in the Reading prosecution, had worked at the Marble Arch store in 1998 and acted as a witness in Allen’s legal claim.
Wallace provided inside knowledge of large quantities of asbestos in the Marble Arch store, in fire doors, pillars, ceiling voids and insulation board. He said the air-conditioning was likely to have circulated asbestos dust, and staff and the public could have been exposed in other ways unless strict measures were followed.
Steve Rotheram, a Labour member of the all-party parliamentary group on asbestos, said: “Today I am writing to the chief executive of the HSE [Health and Safety Executive] to establish immediate clarification on the procedures deployed by Marks & Spencer in relation to asbestos. I want assurances that the public can be confident that they were not put in any danger whilst shopping in these stores.”
M&S declined to comment on its breach of duty to Allen, but stressed it took place in the 1970s and 80s.
In a statement the company said: “We are confident that we now have the most rigorous policy we can have in place and that M&S stores are safe for our employees and our customers.”