While there is concern today over the future of the high street store as shopping online continues to grow, it can often be the unresolved issues of a retail unit’s past that continues to haunt the present.

During the 1950s, more than 1.3 million tonnes of asbestos was imported into the UK, which rose to 1.6 million tonnes in the 1960s and around 1.5 million in the 1970s. The widespread use of the most toxic asbestos fibres in building materials was only banned from the mid 1980s onwards while white asbestos was only banned in 1999. Better asbestos awareness today means recognising that the potential risk from exposure remains a problem, which is neither consigned to history nor limited to the most known about buildings, such as schools, hospitals, council estates and former factory units.

Asbestos worked by builders

Not uncommonly, cases are heard in court where former employees diagnosed with mesothelioma were regularly exposed to fibre dust particles in storage areas where the walls or ceilings were constructed of asbestos boards or panels. Not infrequently, staff would also recall when store renovations would take place and to being exposed to drifting dust when asbestos panels were being worked by the builders.

Today, there is still an issue with asbestos containing materials, which still lay hidden in premises built or refurbished up until the 1980s or even later, including high street shops and retail centre units. It is only when a store or shopping complex undergoes renovation that the deadly materials are uncovered, often in wallboard partitioning, heating ducts, air conditioning units, ceiling voids, etc.

Former charity shop

A reminder of Britain’s deadly asbestos legacy in areas such as retail store construction, and still posing a potential health risk today came to light recently when asbestos was discovered in a former shop unit being renovated to form part of a new Huddersfield department store. All work was halted following a survey revealed asbestos boards in a wall belonging to former charity shop adjacent to the department store. The shopping centre itself was originally built in 1971, at the peak of Britain’s use of asbestos fibres as insulation and fireproofing.

Community centre

Just one month earlier, it was reported that there was to be a ten week delay to a £22 million Community Centre development in Slough due to the discovery of asbestos. Apparently, contractors had been asked to remove the asbestos when it was first discovered during renovations five years earlier. It appears that there may not been clarification over whether the demolition company was responsible for asbestos removal and proper checks included, as required under the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006 /12.

High street brand

Probably one of the more high profile cases involved a national high street retail brand when Asbestos Regulations were breached during the removal of asbestos containing materials at stores in Reading and Bournemouth. A prosecution, which was brought by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), found that “insufficient time and space” had been allowed to remove asbestos uncovered in the ceiling and other areas, forcing contractors to work “overnight” to ensure the store opened the next day.

Rather than observe the mandatory HSE regulations for asbestos removal, the company had produced its own guidance, which was still not was followed “appropriately” by its workers during the renovations. At the Reading outlet, witnesses said that areas cleaned by the company were “re-contaminated” by air moving through the void between the ceiling tiles and the floor above, and thus failed to reduce the spread of asbestos to a minimum. A failure to “plan, manage and monitor” removal of asbestos-containing materials at the Bournemouth store allowed the possibility of asbestos being disturbed by workers in areas that had not been thoroughly surveyed.

Inadequate attention to regulations

Deliberate disregard, error or misunderstanding over the potential health risks from inadequate attention paid to asbestos regulations continue to put both contractors and their clients at risk. It has been estimated that there could be at least half a million properties, both private and public still containing asbestos hidden within the fabric of the building. Under the Control of Asbestos Regulations 2006/12, it is a legal requirement for an authorised survey/risk assessment to be carried out before any works are begun.

Around 90,000 cases of mesothelioma diagnosed in Britain between 1970 and up until 2050 will include around 15,000 employed in the building industry, according to the HSE.