Date: 11 February 2013
A chimney sweep has been sentenced after his failure to remove a bird's nest blocking a chimney flue led to the death of a pensioner in his South Wales home.
Phillip Jones, of Porthcawl, was fined £5,000 and ordered to pay £2,500 in costs at Cardiff Crown Court following a prosecution by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).
The court was told that 73-year-old retired miner Derwyn Rees of Maesteg Road, Llangynwyd, Maesteg had experienced problems keeping his solid fuel fire alight.
Mr Jones, who has been a sweep for 25 years, was asked to sweep the chimney and carried out the work on 5 September 2008 while Mr Rees' sister, was away.
The next day - Mr Rees' birthday - his neighbours noticed his curtains were still drawn and found him dead in his bed. Following a police-led investigation an inquest in October 2010 revealed he died of carbon monoxide poisoning.
Further investigations by HSE and a solid fuel specialist revealed an extensive bird's nest inside the chimney.
Although Mr Jones had encountered a blockage of the chimney while sweeping, he did not check to see if his brush cleared the chimney pot which would indicate the blockage had been cleared. In addition, he failed to carry out a proper smoke test after completing the job, give advice to Mr Rees on ventilating the property or give any verbal or written warning.
HSE Inspector Stephen Jones, speaking after the hearing, said:
"This was a tragic incident and a great shock for Mr Rees' sister and their local community.
"Chimney sweeping is a vitally important job. Sadly Mr Rees paid for substandard work with his life.
"Sweeps must ensure work is done thoroughly and householders are given full information about proper ventilation of their homes to ensure similar tragedies do not happen in the future."
Mr Rees niece, Janet Jones, said:
"Derwyn's death was an avoidable tragedy and has had a huge impact on the family. We hope this case sends a clear message to sweeps so that this sort of incident does not happen again and other people are not put at risk.
"Every year around 15 people die from carbon monoxide poisoning and prolonged exposure can also lead to paralysis and brain damage."
Phillip Keith Jones, of Lakeview Close, Porthcawl, pleaded guilty to a breach of Section 3 (2) of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.
Martin P Glynn, President of the National Association of Chimney Sweeps (NACS), said:
"Anyone booking the services of a chimney sweep should only employ a registered and qualified sweep from the NACS or Guild of Master Sweeps. Members from both organisations work to a code of practice and issue a Certificate of Sweeping. It is always best practice to conduct smoke evacuation checks on chimneys and flues after chimney sweeping to ensure that they are left in a safe working order.
"This tragic case highlights the necessity of using a trained and competent chimney sweep who works to a professional standard as stipulated in the National Code of Practice. Unfortunately the chimney sweep in this incident was not registered or approved."
Further information on the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning can be found on the HSE website at http://www.hse.gov.uk/gas/domestic/co.htm
Notes to editors
- The Health and Safety Executive is Britain's national regulator for workplace health and safety. It aims to reduce work-related death, injury and ill health. It does so through research, information and advice; promoting training; new or revised regulations and codes of practice; and working with local authority partners by inspection, investigation and enforcement. www.hse.gov.uk
- Section 3 (2) of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 states that it shall be the duty of every self-employed person to conduct his undertaking in such a way as to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that he and other persons (not being his employees) who may be affected thereby are not thereby exposed to risks to their health and safety.
MAGAZINE CUTTING FROM DEC 2008 THATS LIFE MAGAZINE RELATING TO CARBON MONOXIDE POISONING VIA SOLID FUEL!
PENSIONER KILLED BY CARBON MONOXIDE GAS AS HE SLEPT (TAKEN FROM THE SUNDERLAND ECHO)
Pensioner John George Rutherford, 80, died in June last year when part of his solid fuel heater became blocked and poisonous carbon monoxide gas seeped through his house.
The throat plate of the living room fire had become blocked by ash and debris.
Mr Terence Knox, a gas service engineer for gentoo, had visited Mr Rutherford's home to carry out a routine safety check on May 24, weeks before he died.
Mr Knox said that although he visited between 40 and 50 properties each week, he remembered checking Mr Rutherford's home.
He said: "I remember the visit because he had an electric organ in the back room and I asked if he still played it. There was nothing out of the ordinary. It was a nice warm day and I commented because he had the fire on.
"I went around with the gas analyser and everything was sound. I threw smoke pellets in the fire and checked outside to make sure the smoke was coming out.
"Then I checked the loft, bedrooms and smoke alarms, then I asked him to sign the sheet."
After Mr Rutherford's death, gentoo housing issued warning statements to tenants about maintaining solid fuel heaters and have now introduced a twice-yearly chimney sweep check.
At the time of Mr Rutherford's death it was policy for their gas service engineers to remind tenants to clean their throat plates once a month as standard.
Mr Knox could not check the state of Mr Rutherford's throat plate because the fire was on, but said that by throwing smoke pellets on the fire he knew the ventilation system was working normally.
Tests showed that Mr Rutherford's blood contained a 47 per cent saturation of carboxyhemoglobin, a sign of carbon monoxide poisoning.
A 50 or 60 per cent saturation is usually fatal, but Mr Rutherford's heart problems meant that he was killed by a lower level.
Coroner Derek Winter said: "I'm given some degree of comfort by the steps that have been taken since this tragedy, but I'm sure there are further lessons that can be learned.
"I'm driven to the conclusion that this lends itself to the verdict of an accident.
"It may have been preventable. I don't know.
"Had gentoo not taken the steps they have taken to improve their systems I would be minded to have written to them to take steps to prevent similar fatalities."
Forensic scientist Mr Mark Tyler said: "Mr Rutherford had inhaled a substantial amount of carbon monoxide gas prior to his death – high enough to be considered life threatening."
Pathologist Dr Peter Cooper supported Mr Tyler's findings.
He said: "I have no doubt that carbon monoxide poisoning is the main cause of death."
Coroner Derek Winter asked Mr Knox why he thought the throat plate had become blocked so quickly.
Mr Knox replied: "After that visit there was heavy downfall. It rained for days on end. That's the only thing I can think of."
Steve Terrance, head of Health and Safety for gentoo, went to Mr Rutherford's house the day after he died with two specialist inspectors.
He said: "One of the inspectors commented on the dust in the house and said he thought it was a blocked throat plate.
"He lit a match in the bed of the fire and the smoke came straight back into the room."
Mr Rutherford's family asked Steve Terrance at the inquest whether gentoo had considered fitting carbon monoxide detectors as standard, but he replied that they felt it would lull tenants into a false sense of security.
MP Fraser Kemp has campaigned for years to raise awareness about carbon monoxide poisoning.
Speaking after the inquest, Mr Kemp said: "First of all I would like to extend my sympathy to the family and friends of John Rutherford.
"Carbon monoxide poisoning is a silent killer that has killed many people in Wearside over the years.
This tragic death again highlights the need for greater awareness.
"It is important that the campaign to highlight these dangers continues and everyone is made aware of them."
Carbon Monoxide (CO) Awareness Week begins this Monday