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HEALTH&SAFETY MATTERS:Lessons to learn from baby's death

No-one was directly to blame for the death of a baby killed by scalding water, but this tragic incident should lead to local authorities being subject to new safety regulations, says BOB TOWSE head of technical and safety at the HVCA.
THE tragic case of little Rhianna Hardie, who died because the thermostat on her family's immersion heater failed, has thrust the safety of domestic water heating systems and how local authorities manage their properties into the spotlight.

Rhianna died because the immersion continued to heat the water in the cylinder well beyond a safe temperature.

Hot water was vented into the cold tank in the loft, which eventually burst pouring scalding water down on to the sleeping baby below.

It is hard to imagine a more tragic case but the coroner's inquest did not point the finger of blame in any particular direction. There are, however, some vital lessons to be learned.

Although all new immersion heaters now have additional overheat protection built in, there are about 3.5M homes in the UK thought to still be at risk because they have old style units. In fact, since Rhianna's death in November 2006 another two children have been seriously injured in almost identical circumstances.

Taunton Deane Borough council, the housing authority responsible for the property where Rhianna died, was absolved from blame.

Accepted standards
The coroner said the council had been 'adhering to all accepted and practised standards of care and good management, as judged against other local authorities and housing associations'.
The last part of this statement speaks volumes.

Nobody was at fault and nobody breached any regulations or legal obligations but the system was still manifestly unsafe and a death was caused.

The council has clearly recognised this fact and has, of its own volition, replaced the thermostats in 4,680 of its homes with newer models that have the automatic safety cut-off.

'We have not hesitated to undertake this programme of replacement, even though there is no legal requirement under any legislation or British Standard,' a Council statement said.
The lack of a legal obligation may be about to change.

The Department for Communities and Local Government is leading a review of hot water safety and is expected to recommend changes to Part G of the Building Regulations.

There is a British Standard covering the maintenance of immersion heaters and having these guidelines turned into enforceable regulations will mean it will no longer be enough to simply adhere to 'accepted and practised
standards'.

None of this will be of much consolation to Rhianna's family and simply making something legally enforceable does not guarantee no more tragedies.

However, it does represent a dynamic and positive reaction from the industry and regulators, which is how it should be.

The HSE has published some guidance for landlords, homeowners and the contractors on how to deal with this problem.
It is downloadable from
the HSE website at:

www.hse.gov.uk/services/localgovernment/alert.htm
1 February 2008

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