20 March, 2008
On 14 November 2006 at 11:30am children and staff were evacuated from Crookhill Primary School in Gateshead after suspicions arose that there could be a noxious agent inside the school. Tests that were carried out by the Health and Safety Executive to three boilers and flue system underneath the classroom where the children and teachers were working revealed the existence of inappropriate levels of carbon monoxide. Subsequent inspection revealed that the boilers themselves had not been maintained properly and as a result were producing dangerous levels of carbon monoxide, which in turn was leaking through gaps in the flue liner back into the school.
The local authority, Gateshead Metropolitan Borough Council had a duty to ensure, as far as was reasonably practicable, that persons in their employment were not exposed to risks to their health and safety in accordance with the Health and Safety at Work Act. Although it was established that the boilers and flue system had not been installed by the council, but by an independent sub contractor, Gateshead MBC were responsible for maintaining and servicing the heating installation. Further investigation revealed serious shortcomings in the council's gas management system leading the HSE to prosecute Gateshead MBC for breach of their duty.
On 19 February 2008, Gateshead Metropolitan Borough Council pleaded guilty to the charge of breaching the Health and Safety at Work Act and was fined £10,000 and ordered to pay the prosecution costs of £6,830. Although the magistrates gave concession to the fact that there was a prompt admission of liability and that there was no other outstanding or spent HSE prosecutions against Gateshead MBC, the level of fine reflects the seriousness with which they took the aggravated breach in light of the fact that it had occurred over a long period of time.
An organization the size of Gateshead MBC needs to devise and implement a robust system in order to deal with gas servicing and maintenance. Gateshead MBC had not done this. In fact the council had failed to keep and monitor adequate records, carry out effective quality control to check the standards of work of its engineers and provide applied and specific training which went beyond the National Accredited standard. HSE guidance on gas safety management has been available for some time, and in 2005 an audit conducted by CORGI resulted in several recommendations put forward to Gateshead MBC which due to internal restructuring were never implemented. Therefore it was felt that Gateshead MBC had fallen short in its attempts to discharge its duty.
One saving grace that ensured the fine was kept to a proportionate amount was the response of Gateshead MBC to the incident. The council was commended for their open and honest assistance to the HSE investigation and the immediate remedial action that they took. An review team was set up which initiated a check of over 60 properties in a three day period and set about creating new procedures which would ensure best practice was adhered to in the future. Furthermore Gateshead MBC has been spreading the message of the dangers of inefficient gas management systems through presentations to other councils and local authorities, holding themselves up as a lesson for other organisations.