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Health & Safety Matters: Shouting about a silent killer

One death from carbon monoxide poisoning is one death too many. Bob Towse, head of technical and safety at the HVCA, welcomes a new hard-hitting report and action plan to tackle Britain’s silent and invisible killer.
THE All-Party Parliamentary Gas Safety Group report: Shouting about a silent killer: Raising carbon monoxide awareness has done a terrific job of capturing all the elements of our on-going battle against carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning. It has, unusually for such a heavily political exercise, also produced some practicable action points.

The report followed a three-month inquiry aimed at producing recommendations to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) review on gas safety. All Party Groups can be extremely influential as they, by definition, represent views from across the political spectrum and, therefore, carry considerable weight with regulators.

The Gas Safety group recorded its distress at the “human tragedy of CO poisoning” adding that “too many people continue to be harmed or even killed as a result of this entirely preventable problem”. It said that the HSE should have a “zero fatality” target and suggested a series of strategies to achieve it.

Lack of consumer awareness is still seen as the biggest issue and the group urged the energy industry and consumer groups to fund a joint national CO awareness campaign. If people are aware of the danger, there is a much better chance of them having their appliances checked and serviced.

The Group advised that a single body, made up of energy retailers, regulators, government departments, the HSE, charities and consumer groups, should be created to co-ordinate the awareness campaigns and should be empowered to demand an annual report from energy companies on their CO awareness activities.

An early warning system goes a long way to reducing casualties and the HSE was urged to find a way of ensuring that every home is fitted with an audible CO detector. The innovative approach suggested was to get mortgage and insurance companies to spearhead this initiative – if you can’t get a loan or insurance without a detector, the chances are you’ll fit one!

The industry should also be delighted about the suggestion in the report that increased fines should be authorised to deter illegal installation work. We are all for that, but enforcing this could be the Achilles Heel as it has been for many well-intentioned anti-Cowboy initiatives in the past, Perhaps this time it will be different.

We are still not absolutely sure of the exact scale of the CO problem, although this situation may change as a result of work the HSE has commissioned. The All Party Group said health authorities must be forced to create a systematic record of all poisoning incidents so it can accurately measure where efforts can be best focused.

However, the most damning finding of the research from the industry’s point-of-view was that “there is a lack of skilled workers and trainees in the sector”. The report challenges all industry groups to face up to this problem and deal with it.

For its part, the HVCA has been addressing such critical safety issues for many years through its adult new entrant programmes and campaigns. However, the HVCA knows better than most how much more needs to be done and that a larger pool of skilled labour is vital to drive up safety standards across the industry.

The extra political momentum created by the All Party Group and, hopefully, its influence on the HSE gives all interested and implicated parties a great opportunity and responsibility to co-ordinate its efforts and crack this tragic problem once and for all.

For more information contact Bob Towse on 020 7313 4928 (btowse@hvca.org.uk).
1 October 2006

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