Page last updated at 15:39 GMT, Thursday, 10 January 2008

Focus on baby death safety checks

Rhianna Hardie
Rhianna Hardie suffered 95% burns in the incident

The inquest on a baby scalded to death in her cot was told 3.5 million homes with similar thermostats could need safety checks.

A health and safety inspector warned the government in 2002 of the dangers when a woman was similarly burned.

Coroner Michael Rose said he would writing to the government following the death of ten-month-old Rhianna Hardie.

Rhianna suffered 95% burns at her Taunton home when the water tank burst drenching her as she lay in her cot.

Mr Rose has urged anyone with a boiler with an outmoded thermostat to check their heating system for a potentially fatal fault.

The faulty thermostat in an immersion heater failed causing water in an airing cupboard tank to overheat.

The inquest heard how the water eventually boiled, forcing through a safety vent pipe into the plastic cold water tank in the loft.

The plastic tank began to fill up with water close to boiling point.

The plastic water tank was capable of holding 50 gallons of water rated at maximum temperature of 25C.

Current safety standards say the loft tank should be able to hold boiling water for up to 500 hours, if fitted correctly.

The inquest was told the tank at the Hardies' home had been mounted on an old door during modernisation work in 1973 and part of the tank was overhanging.

Ruptured tank
The ruptured tank was shown to the inquest

Later in the night the tank ruptured sending gallons of scalding hot water pouring through the ceiling and into the bedroom where Rhianna was asleep.

Her father suffered burns to his hands and arms as he tried to lift his daughter from her cot.

The baby was taken to hospital in the early hours of 19 November 2006 but died a month later.

The inquest jury at Taunton was told of a Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigation into a similar incident at Penzance, Cornwall, in May 2002.

Sharon Minister, aged 30, suffered 45% burns when scalding water poured through her ceiling as she slept.

Her death in hospital from septicaemia was judged to have been accidental.

In April 2004 the British Standard Institute said any repairs, replacement or new installation of immersion heaters should use models which had a safety trip.

Excessively hot water coming out of hot water taps
Excessive noise or bubbling noise from hot water cylinder
Hot water coming out of cold water taps
Steam or condensation in the loft

But this new standard did not apply retrospectively so it was not necessary to replace old-style immersion heaters.

Danny Davis, technical officer for the Institute of Plumbing and Heating Engineers, said a competent person inspecting a heating system would look at the whole system to examine the effect of a single component failing.

"For most people with gas central heating the immersion heater is something that would only get switched on if the main boiler was to fail as a handy way of getting hot water.

"However in an older installation where the immersion heater is the only way of heating water then it should be checked regularly in the same way you would have your car serviced."

The HSE issued a safety alert to raise awareness of the "rare but potentially serious" scalding risk in domestic hot water systems using an electric immersion heater in conjunction with a plastic storage tank in the loft.

It said the loft tanks must be properly mounted on an adequate supporting base which is level, larger than the bottom area of the tank and made of marine-grade plywood.

It recommends a safety cut out device, independent of the immersion heater thermostat, to limit the water temperature to a safe level should the thermostat fail.

The inquest was told the fault which ultimately lead to Rhianna's death could affect up to 3.5m other homes in the UK.

The Local Government Association (LGA) has issued advice to councils urging tenants, homeowners and landlords to look for telltale signs of faults with hot water tanks.

The guidance warns that particular consideration should be given to hot water systems more than 10 years old.

Graphic showing what happened
1 Thermostat fails in on position
2 Boiling water is forced into roof tank
3 Thermal circulation causes cold water from roof tank to flow into bottom of copper cylinder
4 Eventually water in loft tank is replaced with scalding hot water
5 Tank splits and boiling water pours through ceiling

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