It shouldn’t have been allowed to happen but a basic failure to understand the risks posed by flammable chemicals has left a school girl scarred for life. This happened when a 15 year-old girl was engulfed in a fireball from a cooking stove during a school camping expedition. The girl was one of 25 girls on a three-day Duke of Edinburgh’s Silver Award camping trip.
The incident occurred when another girl poured methylated spirits on to the cooking stove as she believed it was going out; this caused a flashover. The erupting flames set fire to the girl’s clothing and headscarf. She suffered severe burns to her hands, arms, face, neck and legs and was in Chelmsford Hospital’s Special Burns Unit for three weeks. She has since had to have a skin graft and has permanent scarring.
The HSE investigated and brought a prosecution against Newham Council for safety failings. Southwark Crown Court was told that HSE found the incident could have been avoided if basic precautions had been taken. Fuel should have been kept in the correct containers, safely stored, and simple procedures followed for lighting the stove.
The Duke of Edinburgh camping group was led by an expedition leader employed by the Council, along with two teachers and a school administrator. The court heard that the group was enjoying the second night at the camp and some were cooking food for the evening meal. One of the girls wanted to cook some more food but thought the stove was going out. She picked up a five-litre container of methylated spirits and poured some into the stove causing the instant flashover.
The expedition leader ran to the burning teenager and rolled her back and forth on the ground while shouting for others to bring water and call 999. At the same time, he was beating her trousers with his hands to try to put out the flames. He saw the girl’s headscarf on fire and quickly removed it while a man from another group poured water over her face. They continued to dowse her with water until paramedics arrived minutes later.
Newham Borough Council, of Dockside Road, London E16, pleaded guilty to a breach of Section 3(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974. It was fined £15,000 and ordered to pay £17,246 in costs.
The HSE inspector commented after the case that this incident was avoidable and the failure to take simple safety measures has led to a young girl being unnecessarily scarred for life.
You have to ask yourself why the organisers take a five-litre container of methylated spirits and why was this easily accessible? This type of container is not designed to fill a camping stove and the girls should not have had access to it; surely this was not too complicated to be included in the risk assessment.
As the HSE has stressed, it’s not about stopping school trips or burdening staff with excessive paperwork. It is about identifying simple precautions and ensuring they are in place
Had the fuel been taken in containers incorporating a safety cut-off valve and kept away from ignition sources then this accident would not have happened.
The important learning point here is that a basic lack of understanding the risks from a flammable fuel can easily result in a serious accident. Ask yourself whether your employees really understand the substances they are working with and whether they are they in the correct containers and safely stored. For many employers we know the answer to all of these questions would be “could do much better”.