Sprue Safety Products recently held a roundtable event in London, entitled New Legislation and Best Practice in Gas Safety. The main topic of discussion was carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning and the benefits of fitting CO alarms, especially in social housing properties. A whole host of people were in attendance, including representatives from housing associations and local authorities, housing maintenance companies, Gas Safe Register, the charity CO Angels and Sprue Safety Products. Here we look at the key points raised.
On average, one person dies every week from the build-up of dangerous levels of carbon monoxide (CO) from faulty home heating appliances and currently around two million homes in the UK are at risk of dangerous levels of CO*. But because CO is a colourless and odourless gas, the only way to detect it is with a CO alarm.
At the roundtable event it was clear from the outset that everyone in attendance agreed that CO poses a very real danger, and that more should be done to encourage the use of CO alarms in both public and private sector housing.
Jamie Cooper, technical registrations manger for Gas Safe Register, kicked off the discussion. Being heavily involved in UK carbon monoxide investigations, he is well-versed on the subject.
Jamie was keen to firstly talk about carbon monoxide legislation: “In October 2010 new guidance came out for solid fuel appliances. So if you install a brand new solid fuel appliance in a property you have to have a carbon monoxide alarm installed. This doesn’t currently apply to gas, but there are moves to bring certain requirements in under the forthcoming Green Deal.”
The Green Deal aims to revolutionise the energy efficiency of UK homes and businesses by giving people the opportunity to invest in energy saving measures, and subsequently pay for them through their energy bills.
And so it seems CO alarms could be fitted at the same time as new appliances, such as high efficiency gas boilers. As Jamie said: “When people are changing their boilers as part of the Green Deal, especially when there’s a grant involved, they will have to install a carbon monoxide alarm as well, which is fantastic news.”
The discussion swiftly moved on to accessing flues concealed within voids, and Technical Bulletin 008. Published by Gas Safe Register on behalf of the gas industry the bulletin calls for inspection hatches for concealed flues to be installed by 2013. Some housing associations and local authorities present at the roundtable indicated they were currently dealing with this document, and it appeared to be a very emotive issue that was causing some difficulties.
Jamie Cooper was keen to stress Technical Bulletin 008 isn’t new legislation. The key driver was a HSE safety alert issued after a high-profile CO incident occurred, but there’s been a requirement for gas engineers to inspect flue systems for years – and guidance is in place for the voluntary installation of inspection hatches for concealed flues.
Jamie said: “What’s making people stand up and listen now is that if you don’t have an inspection hatch installed by 2013 the property will be at risk, so you’re going to have to do something about it.”
Cory Francis, gas contracts manager from Hyde Housing Group, said: “I feel this has come in to help and highlight the issues, but there’s always been a requirement to be able to access flues, the problem is often how buildings have been designed by architects.
“We’ve got a whole programme in place and we’re jumping through hoops in the organisation to get funding for inspections where we think there are concealed flues, and we also need to do remedial works. The programme of works will last for two years, involving a mixture of new and old buildings. A lot of them are new; in some architecturally award-winning buildings gas regulations have been overlooked.”
The general feeling was that because inspection hatches are unattractive, even unsightly, architects and tenants alike don’t want them installed, but that Technical Bulletin 008 should drive things forward.
After common experiences surrounding inspection hatches and concealed flues had been shared, including some involving abusive tenants, Paul Knight, area sales manager from Sprue Safety Products, reflected: “For new build projects perhaps it is the case that architects need to be educated on gas safety. The key might lie in initiatives such as CPD (Continuous Performance Development) seminars.”
Two of the people present at the roundtable had very personal experiences to share. Making up two thirds of an organisation called CO Angels, Stacey Rodgers and Vikki Courtman have both lost loved ones through CO poisoning.
Stacey’s 10-year-old son Dominic died in 2004 from CO leaking into her house from next door. Meanwhile, in 2006 Vikki lost her boyfriend to CO poisoning, resulting from flue and chimney faults. They have both been campaigning ever since. CO Angels has launched the 10 by 20 campaign, which aims to have CO alarms fitted in at least 10 million UK homes and properties by 2020.
Following the CO Angels’ heartfelt stories and details about their campaigning efforts, Don Young, asset manager at Guiness South said: “For anyone that’s been in the industry for any length of time and has experienced an investigation into a death from carbon monoxide, you are preaching to the converted. We do spread the word, but it’s difficult for us to get the message across. Some people think, ‘it’ll never happen to me’.”
And it seems it’s not just social housing tenants that need to be made more aware of the dangers of CO poisoning. Dragana Gvozdic, delivery manager for Hyde Housing Group, wondered whether a link could be made between fire and carbon monoxide safety. Though fire safety was traditionally regarded as a social housing issue, the trend is changing. She suggested incidents and fatalities in private rented accommodation are increasing, whereas in social housing they are decreasing.
She said: “I honestly believe the risk is actually higher with private landlords than us social landlords because we are a) heavily regulated and b) heavily audited – but the private rented sector slips through the net, and that’s where the highest risk is.”
Michelle Levene, gas inspector for East Homes Group, agreed, saying: “Letting agencies insist on fire alarms, sometimes for insurance purposes, but not CO detectors.”
CO and cooking was next on the agenda. Many CO alarms are actually triggered by gas ovens and hobs, and this is especially true in ethnic cooking where large pots cover multiple hob rings, or where cookers are dirty and greasy or are covered in aluminium foil to keep them clean. All of these things can lead to the gas not burning properly, and a serious CO hazard.
Jamie Cooper from Gas Safe Register reminded the social housing landlords present that a cooker belonging to a tenant isn’t legally their responsibility. However, an important debate followed about whether landlords nonetheless have a duty of care – and this is a very grey area.
There are further uncertainties about whether maintenance engineers should isolate ‘at risk’ cookers or gas heating appliances. It was agreed that engineers essentially have to ‘cover their backs’, but all of the people around the table generally thought it would be a difficult decision to make, especially if they weren’t 100 per cent sure the appliance was unsafe, and if by turning it off they would be leaving vulnerable people, such as the elderly or young children, without heating.
Michelle Levene from East Homes Group added: “It’s hard to explain to people sometimes. I get a lot of people, especially the elderly, questioning the changes, and why all this has come about now, when years ago it didn’t happen. I say it probably did happen years ago, but the problem wasn’t recognised. They don’t seem to realise there was probably hundreds and hundreds of deaths, but they weren’t investigated in the same way as they are today.”
Leading on from this, Jamie Cooper explained that CO poisoning is actually very difficult to investigate, prove and record, and it’s a long procedure. CO Angel Vikki Courtman agreed; she had to wait four months for her boyfriend’s death to be diagnosed, and for the funeral.
Paul Knight from Sprue Safety Products believes part of the problem is ignorance and a lack of knowledge around CO poisoning and its symptoms.
He said: “In reality CO alarms are a simple way to save lives and a second line of defence for identifying dangerous gas appliances.”
And, as Michelle Levene from East Homes Group pointed out: “What people don’t understand is that if you have a fatality it costs so much more when you get fined than if you’d put a CO detector in every single property.”
Michael Brown is the gas contract manager from East Homes Group. He agreed: “And there’s the time you spend, and the reputation of the organisation to consider – and the fact that someone died.”
In conclusion, everyone agreed that awareness about CO poisoning and the importance of installing CO alarms definitely needs to be raised, and that joint collaborations between social housing providers, Gas Safe Register and Sprue Safety Products could be part of the answer.
* Research commissioned from University College London by HSE (Health & Safety Executive)
Issued on behalf of Sprue Safety Products by Bright, 5 Highfield Road, Edgbaston, Birmingham B15 3ED