Expensive problem: Why blocked drains are rocking the industry

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A huge fine levied against Tesco is set to have major repercussions for retailers and their contractors, as it puts refrigeration management and the relative responsibilities of managing leakages from display cases into the spotlight.

Luton Magistrates fined Tesco almost three quarters of a million pounds for failing to manage the consequences of display case leakages. The £733,333 fine and prosecution for health and safety breaches brought by environmental health officers for local authority Dacorum Borough Council followed an elderly customer slipping and breaking their hip in the Hemel Hempstead Tesco Extra.

The magistrate highlighted a failure to manage a systematic problem with blocked condensate drains and consequent leakage – still seen by many as an ‘occupational hazard’ in retail display refrigeration.

The fact that District Judge Leigh-Smith put the responsibility at the retailer’s door has also sent ripples round the industry, since who bears ultimate responsibility for blocked drains – store manager, contractor or maintenance contractor, or senior management – has been the source of much debate.

The fine was levied at Luton Magistrates Court on 24 January for breaching The Health and Safety at Work Act by not ensuring customers and staff were protected from risk.

The incident itself dates back to 2015 where a 91-year-old customer slipped on ‘pooling watery liquid’, which was leaking from display cases at the Tesco Extra store in Jarman Way, Hemel Hempstead,

Dacorum Council’s Environmental Health Officers reported that following the customer’s fall he suffered multiple hip fractures, and ‘was fortunate to survive such an injury.’

But the magistrate emphasised that the scale of the fine was not for the single incident, but for the retailer’s failure to put measures in place to manage the persistent leakage problems at the store.

The case not only publicised the store’s increasingly desperate attempts to fix the problem but it brought the public’s attention to the well-known cause of many condensate blockages – so-called biofilm.

Dacorum council detailed the problems at Jarman Way in a statement: “The leaks should have been able to drain away, but had not been able to do so because of blockage in the drains under the floor. The drains had become blocked because of bacteria setting the leakage into a jelly-like consistency, which prevented further liquid passing through. To get at the problem, Tesco eventually had to make holes in the floor. This was done within two days of a report for a similar drainage problem in the bakery, however it was not done at all for the drains serving the leakage from the refrigeration units in the meat and dairy aisles until after [the] injury.”

The council continued: “Despite such management systems being in place, Tesco failed either to cure the underlying blockage or effectively deal with the pooling leakage from refrigeration units over an extensive period. The problems first began on 5 June 2015, 63 days before the accident. Over the two months to 6 August, Tesco had its maintenance engineers in several times, but to no material effect, other than that they and other Tesco staff used machines to suck up the liquid, only to have it return because the leaks were continuous and the blockage was still there.”

Judge Leigh-Smith concluded that the store management failed to put in place actions to mitigate the potential slip hazard arising from the continued leaks, such as taking the display cases out of service or putting up barriers.

Tesco argued that these health and safety breaches were down to local failures at the particular store. But after listening to evidence from a number of witnesses and experts, Judge Leigh-Smith disagreed. He found that the maintenance issues should have been identified and addressed at area management level.

Dacorum Councillor Julie Banks added a further message to business owners. She said:

“We will always take action where we deem it necessary to protect the public. This case sends out an important message, highlighting the need for businesses to comply with health and safety law and take all appropriate measures to prevent risk of injury to their employees and the public.”

But the case has led who work with retail drainage to redouble their calls for the area to be subject to more industry attention. Paurick Gaughan, managing director of condensate management specialist Gel-Clear noted that blockages can arise from the angle of the drains, which means that the problem can start at installation.

He said that the complexity of the supply chain underlined the need for more guidance. He said: “Food retail is a complex stakeholder group, with many sub-contractor layers and so industry standards are the essential point of reference to work from. This has certainly come to the fore right now and I have asked the BRA to consider specific guidance on drainage and condensate.

By Andrew Gaved, published at: https://www.racplus.com/news/expensive-problem-why-blocked-drains-are-rocking-the-industry-28-02-2020/

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