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Domestic safety issues in local authority and other rented housing

SIM 07/2008/07

Heads of Operations, FOD Inspectors, Mechanical Engineering, Electrical and Fire and Explosion Specialist Inspectors

Summary

This SIM provides background information to operational staff about domestic safety issues affecting local and public authorities in the context of landlords' duties under s.3 of HSWA 1974 in social housing and other domestic accommodation. It includes information from HSE domestic safety alerts on scalding risk from heating systems and explosion risk from redundant back boilers previously circulated to all local authorities in England, Scotland and Wales. No proactive inspection or action is expected of FOD inspectors but the information may be of relevance to planned and reactive work.

Introduction

HSE has been involved in the investigation of a number of incidents in rented domestic premises and dissemination of information about the risks arising. These include two fatal scalding incidents resulting from a series of failures in typical domestic hot water heating installations and a number of explosions, including one fatality, arising from redundant back boilers. Four fatalities have also arisen from carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning linked to solid-fuel range cooker/heaters.

The majority of the incidents occurred in housing provided either directly by local authorities or on their behalf by arms-length management organisations and housing associations, although some were in private rented housing.

HSE's involvement in these matters arises from application of section 3(1) HSW Act to the provision of rented domestic accommodation as part of the conduct of an undertaking.

In England the Department for Communities and Local Government (CLG) sponsors housing regulation and building standards law applicable to these matters regardless of whether HSW Act applies. The Welsh Assembly Government sponsors a similar set of legislation whilst Scottish Government operates a separate legislative regime.

Background information

Scalding risk

Ten-month-old Rhianna Hardie died in Taunton in November 2006 following an incident in which she received fatal scald injuries when boiling water cascaded through the bedroom ceiling of the tenanted accommodation where she lived. The circumstances were almost identical to those four years earlier in housing association accommodation, which resulted in the death of 30-year-old Sharon Minister.

After the first incident HSE's view was (and remains) that risk of recurrence was low. HSE took the following action:

Following the second incident, which attracted considerable media interest, the Coroner was critical of Government for failing to publicise the risks after the first incident. HSE liaised with CLG, which is seen as the lead department, and agreed action to further disseminate information and to liaise with the devolved administrations. 

Explosion risk

Over the last five years a number of explosions have occurred when an open fire has been lit in the grate in front of a redundant solid fuel back boiler that has been decommissioned but left in situ and not properly drained and vented. This can lead to a build up of steam under pressure in the boiler casing and ultimately explosion.  Irrespective of explosion risk structural damage can also occur through frequent overheating and associated expansion and contraction of drained and dry units in situ.

CO poisoning risk linked to solid-fuel cookers and similar domestic appliances

HSE is aware of a number of incidents of CO poisoning related to solid-fuel range cooker/heater combinations in tenanted accommodation. The risks arise from faulty or poorly maintained appliances, specifically lack of adequate sweeping of the chimney and/or flue.

Tenants often remain responsible for maintaining their own chimneys but are unaware of the risks. Landlords need to ensure adequate maintenance or provide relevant information to tenants as appropriate.

Enforcement issues

HSE is the enforcing authority with regard to HSW Act duties of both private and public sector landlords. HSE has no remit for building or housing standards or regulations.

Enforcement Policy Unit has advised on section 3 issues. HSE's published enforcement policy with respect to s.3(1) states that where other bodies have specific responsibilities and can take the lead in the same or overlapping areas HSE will not prioritise application of its limited resource in such cases. 

The enforcement policy makes a distinction between reactive and proactive enforcement of s.3. Where an incident has occurred and HSE is clearly the only body that can hold a dutyholder to account and see that justice is done then it must and will continue to do so.

In respect of this type of domestic safety matter HSE's view is that the most relevant bodies are those LAs that have specific powers to deal with a range of risks in all types of housing.

In England and Wales this is provided for by the Housing Act 2004 and Housing Health and Safety Rating System Regulations, which provide for a risk assessment approach to poor conditions and health & safety risks in dwellings. However, enforcement is limited to remedying the defects. 

In Scotland the Housing (Scotland) Act 2006 exists but the regime differs and further information should be obtained from the Scottish Government.

Further information on domestic housing matters:

Further legislation may also be applicable such as the Construction Products Regulations 1991.

In determining an effective approach to deal with these domestic safety risks HSE considered the most effective use of resource alongside enforcement policy and the principles of sensible risk. This resulted in HSE taking reasonable steps to publicise the information to enable dutyholders to determine proportionate action needed in each case. 

Action taken to disseminate information on domestic safety risks

In June 2008 Public Services Sector (PSS) wrote to all Las in Scotland, Wales and England about both the scalding and explosion risks in tenanted accommodation in the context of HSWA s.3 landlord duties. The correspondence also made brief reference to the potential regulatory role applicable to many LAs under housing legislation.

The correspondence comprised:

The information is posted on the HSE local government web pages. It has been shared with both the MOD and Health Services Unit (in the context of their responsibility for large-scale housing stock) as well as with CLG, Welsh Assembly Government and Scottish Government.

In England CLG took responsibility for publicising the domestic safety issues and wrote separately to LAs with regulatory responsibility under housing legislation, as well as the Housing Corporation and relevant trade bodies.

HSE expects that LA duty holders are aware of the risks arising from solid fuel combustion appliances and has not written specifically on this issue. However, the information was passed to CLG and the devolved administrations for information and action as appropriate.

Guidance on carbon monoxide and solid fuel appliances can be found on HSE's domestic gas safety web site.  Details of CLG's competent person scheme for work on solid fuel combustion appliances is also available on their website:

Inspector action

The safety alerts and information are intended to assist dutyholders in determining proportionate action to take to manage the risks in their undertaking. This will vary according to the extent, age and location of the housing stock as well as type of installations, and any previous renovations or remedial action taken. No specific response was requested or expected.

There is no expectation of FOD follow-up or related enforcement specifically arising from this. However, it is appreciated that Inspectors may be involved in investigation of incidents, or may wish to pursue related management issues during the course of inspection, for which the information may be useful. Inspectors should follow normal protocol and base their decision to investigate or pursue matters during inspection on the guidance on section 3 HSWA and the guidance in this SIM.

Inspectors are invited to liaise with Government and Disciplined Services Unit in PSS if they are involved in these or other domestic safety issues within local government.

Sector contact

Ashford
Northampton

Further information

Further detail about solid fuel combustion appliances can be obtained from the Solid Fuel Association helpline – 0845 6014406 or consult the websites: Solid Fuel Association or HETAS.

Updated 2016-01-10