Nine hair and beauty workers from Havering College of Further and Higher Education have been awarded more than £100,000 in damages after being poisoned by carbon monoxide.
The court was told the workers suffered “vice-like” headaches, dizziness, fatigue, vomiting and hair loss. They frequently consulted doctors to try and discover the cause of their symptoms.
One staff member said the exposure made her feel so ill she quit her job. The beauty therapist said “I have always been very active but suddenly I was permanently tired and had such bad headaches that I was taking tablets all the time”.
Students also complained of headaches and dizziness – staff regularly opened windows “to keep them alert”, unaware of the fumes in the classroom.
Symptoms of carbon monoxide inhalation are not always obvious but its effects can be severe and sometimes fatal.
Some put their mystery symptoms down to stress but in December 2012, it was revealed a broken boiler flue had been blocked since late 2010.
The boiler flue was blocked by a crumbling chimney – causing toxic carbon monoxide fumes to seep from the basement into teaching and work areas.
The court was told the local authority and college governors were given a “red flag” in February 2012 when an audit found the boiler plant and flues needed replacing.
The judge said the college had “failed to take any appropriate action in response to persistent complaints made by the claimants that they were suffering from headaches, nausea, lethargy, excessive daytime somnolence, irritability, vomiting and loss of concentration”. He concluded the college failed to:
- investigate the persistent complaints made by staff
- notify the county council and governing body about the symptoms.
Havering College denied the women had been poisoned.
However, the judge ruled the college was “negligent” and breached Health & Safety regulations.
The workers were awarded between £8,500 to £16,000 each – total damages amounted to £104,424.
Lawyers representing the affected workers said their clients suffered terribly as a result of prolonged exposure and hope the case serves as a warning to others.
Employers and landlords have a duty of care to make sure gas appliances are properly and regularly maintained.
Carbon monoxide – CO – is a colourless, odourless, tasteless, poisonous gas produced by the incomplete burning of carbon-based fuel.
Carbon based fuels are usually safe to use, however, when the fuel does not burn properly, excess CO is produced that is poisonous. When CO enters the body, it prevents the blood from bringing oxygen to cells, tissues, the brain and organs.
Taking sensible precautions can dramatically reduce the risk of CO poisoning.
Make sure any work carried out in relation to gas appliances in premises is carried out by a ‘Gas Safe’ registered engineer – competent in this area of work.
The Health & Safety Executive strongly advise gas appliances and/or flues are installed and serviced regularly for safety by a Gas Safe registered engineer.
Landlords have a legal duty to carry out annual gas safety checks and maintain gas appliances – tenants must be given a copy of the completed gas safety check certificate.