Housing society blamed for fatal boiler explosion

James Woodward,Press Association
Monday 07 December 2009 14:57

A housing society was today fined £50,000 for health and safety breaches leading to a boiler explosion that killed a woman and her dog.

Christine Goodall, 65, died in November 2007 when the iron boiler behind her fireplace, which had not been properly decommissioned, blew apart.

Mrs Goodall, of Tywning, near Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire, died along with dog Kelly after water in the boiler heated up when she lit a log fire, causing the equipment to explode.

Severn Vale Housing Society Ltd which wrote the work specification for plumber Matthew Lee, 41, bore the brunt of the responsibility.

Gloucester Crown Court judge William Hart also ordered the not-for-profit organisation to pay £7,500 costs.

Mr Lee was fined £7,500, with £1,500 costs.

Severn Vale Housing Society and Lee both pleaded guilty to an offence under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.

The fatal accident occurred when Mrs Goodall lit a fire at Nut Orchard End for the first time since the back boiler had been put out of commission in 1999.

But the work was not properly carried out as the boiler was not fully drained of water and instead left sealed, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) said.

When Mrs Goodall lit the wood the left-over water heated up generating steam and building up the lethal pressure which caused the blast.

That type of boiler, which sits behind open fires, was commonly fitted in both private and public housing at a time when coal was still a popular form heating.

Severn Vale said it had now removed most of its back boilers in accordance with the latest guidelines.

Only a small number of its tenants refused to have them taken away because they could not afford central heating, the court heard.

HSE Inspector Caroline Bird said "This tragic incident has led HSE to issue a safety alert to the plumbing and heating industry and homeowners about the potential dangers of lighting a solid fuel fire when a redundant solid fuel back boiler has been left within the fireplace.

"The information in this safety alert will help anyone affected to decide whether they need address a potential safety risk within their property or housing stock.

"Anyone who thinks they might have a redundant back boiler in potentially dangerous circumstances should never light a fire in the fireplace until they have sought professional advice."

In his sentencing remarks, Judge Hart said he had to take Severn Vale's not-for-profit status and Mr Lee's financial situation into account when considering the fines.

He said the "principal responsibility" lay with Severn Vale which had created the decommissioning guidelines and had also failed to inspect Mr Lee's work.

Simply drilling a hole would have relieved enough pressure in the boiler to make it safe, he noted.

Mrs Goodall, who had lived in Tywning for 50 years and raised her family there, was found by a passing neighbour the morning after the explosion on November 11.

A ground-floor window was open and its frame damaged.

Prosecutor Ian Dixey said: "It was clear the fireplace had exploded and both Mrs Goodall and her dog had died of injuries sustained in the explosion."

He added: "You can see from the photos the amount of damage done to the room. Residents of the neighbouring properties said they had heard a loud bang."

Robert Duval, defending Mr Lee, said his client was Corgi registered and had been working for the last 10 years without incident.

Mr Lee's failures in dealing with the boiler were "uncharacteristic" Mr Duval said.

Madeleine Woolfe, for Severn Vale, said: "The society has been extremely vigilant in writing to every person who lives in their housing to tell them of the dangers of keeping such a boiler. A very large number have been removed but a small number have refused."

That was largely because a few people simply could not afford to get central heating fitted, she explained.

Outside court Mrs Goodall's eldest son Kevin said he hoped that the issues highlighted in the case would prevent further tragedy.

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