Gas death council is fined 25,000 pounds: 'Disastrous programme' of work led to incorrect installation of 800 heaters and escape of poisonous fumes, court told

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The Independent Online
A COUNCIL was yesterday fined the maximum of pounds 25,000 after an elderly tenant was killed by fumes from one of hundreds of wrongly-installed gas heaters.

An investigation following the death of Albert Mason, 75, in his flat from carbon monoxide poisoning revealed a 'disastrous programme' of work carried out by Manchester City Council's direct works department.

Paul Blackburn, of the Health and Safety Executive, told Derrick Fairclough, Manchester stipendiary magistrate, that 800 out of 1,840 gas warm air heaters installed on 19 council estates in a replacement programme had to be switched off to ensure the tenants' safety.

He said that in Mr Mason's home in Hendham Vale, a metal plate that should have been screwed in had been fixed with adhesive tape and another plate had become detached, letting carbon monoxide circulate around the house.

Mr Blackburn said 'few if any' of the workers fitting the heaters had experience of such systems. 'Despite the large scale of the scheme they did not give proper instructions to their employees specifying methods of installation or quality checks.'

There were no arrangements to check safety, methods of installation were improvised and the acting supervisor in charge of the replacement on Mr Mason's estate had received no training or instructions on his responsibilities, he said.

'The consequences of so many heaters wrongly installed could have been far more serious. It is suggested this arose from attitudes in the council leading to complacency.'

The council, which pleaded guilty, was fined the maximum of pounds 5,000 under gas safety regulations in connection with Mr Mason's death and the maximum pounds 20,000 under the Health and Safety at Work Act for failing to check the other heaters. It was ordered to pay pounds 500 costs.

Mr Fairclough said: 'I have never sought to hide the fact I think that the maximum fine within my power is really insufficient punishment for what happened.'

Charles Garside QC, for the council, said it wanted to express its 'sincere regret' to Mr Mason's family.

He said a four-month investigation and the publication of the findings showed how thorough the inquiry was and 'how generally appalled those responsible were when it became clear just how disastrous this programme designed to increase the safety and comfort of tenants was'.

Mr Garside said Penny Badcoe, chief officer of the direct works department, had resigned. No effort was being spared to identify those responsible for deficient installations and bring disciplinary proceedings.

However, the dead man's brother, Ernest Mason, 69, from Sale, Greater Manchester, said outside the court: 'It is the most disgusting thing I have ever heard. That was murder and it should have gone to the Crown Court.'

It is understood the council is facing more than a dozen civil actions from tenants who claim their health was affected by fumes from the wrongly-installed heaters.

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