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Council sentenced after elderly tenant falls through uncovered hole in floor

Date:
4 June 2014

Renfrewshire Council has been fined for serious safety failings after an elderly tenant fell four feet through an access hole in her hallway that had been left uncovered by council workers.

Margaret O’Donnell, 77, suffered a fracture in the bone at the top of the arm near the shoulder and an undisplaced crack in the thigh bone in the fall, on 3 February 2010, while workers were installing a new central heating boiler in her Paisley flat.

Paisley Sheriff Court heard today (4 June) each boiler installation is normally completed in a day and involves a hatch cut in the floorboards to allow access to pipe work and cabling. Before work starts, tenants are given an information sheet to read and sign, which indicates the extent of works involved. However, it fails to mention that a hole may be made in the floorboards of the property.

The court was told that during the installation, Mrs O’Donnell was told to stay in her living room as the floorboards in the hallway were being lifted. A joiner cut a hole in the floorboards outside the living room door and without covering it he left the premises to do another task.

The rest of the installation team heard someone shouting and found Mrs O’Donnell had fallen into the hatch. They helped her out and took her into the living room where she said she was fine. No first aid or medical assistance was sought by any of the council employees and they did not report the incident until a few days later.

Several hours after the fall, Mrs O’Donnell’s family visited and were advised by a worker of the incident and that Mrs O’Donnell’s shoulder was sore. She was taken to hospital and discharged that day but returned five days later complaining of pain.

On 11 February she was admitted to hospital with speech impairment, possibly due to a stroke. She was later referred to physiotherapy as she had reduced movement in her arm. Mrs O’Donnell died in 2012 of unrelated causes.

An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) into the circumstances of her fall, found Renfrewshire Council had failed to take appropriate measures to prevent people falling into openings in the floor; that no steps were taken by the council to ensure employees were provided with covers or that they were aware of the importance of using one.

Renfrewshire Council, of Renfrewshire House, Cotton Street, Paisley, was fined £20,000 after pleading guilty to breaching Section 3(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974.

Following the case, HSE Inspector Russell Berry, said:

“This incident was both entirely foreseeable and easily preventable. Renfrewshire Council’s own risk assessment stated that all open areas of flooring should be covered indicating it was well aware of the risk from an open access hole.

“However, they did not provide information to workers about the need for covers or ensure covers were used by their employees to protect tenants during the work.

“It was evident that significant risks of injury were present during the installation work and as Margaret O’Donnell remained in the flat during the work, the risk of personal injury was even greater. Simple measures such as a temporary plywood cover would have eliminated the risks and prevented this incident.”

Notes to Editors:

1. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) 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

2. In Scotland the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service has sole responsibility for the raising of criminal proceedings for breaches of health and safety legislation.

3. Section 3(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 states: “It shall be the duty of every employer to conduct his undertaking in such a way as to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that persons not in his employment who may be affected thereby are not thereby exposed to risks to their health or safety.”

4. HSE news releases are available at press.hse.gov.uk

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