Health & Safety – Prosecutions following the fatal fire at Cameron House Hotel

Last month Cameron House Resort (Loch Lomond) Ltd, the owners of the Cameron House Hotel, plead guilty to two separate offences under the Fire (Scotland) Act 2005 at Dumbarton Sheriff Court following a fire in December 2017 which tragically claimed the lives of two guests. In addition a night porter at the hotel also plead guilty to a separate offence under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 in that they failed to take reasonable care of the health and safety of persons affected by their acts or omissions at work, which included guests of the hotel.

The fire was started after the night porter removed ashes from an open fire, collected the ashes in a plastic bag and then placed the bag in a cupboard containing readily combustible items, which included kindling, cardboard and newspapers. A short while later the hotel fire alarm system activated, and staff discovered a fire in the cupboard which they then attempted to put out with fire extinguishers. The Fire and Rescue Service were summoned and by the time they arrived they were faced with a well-developed fire which had spread beyond its point of origin. Being an older structure, voids within the hotel exacerbated the rapid spread of the fire and of toxic fire gases throughout the building. Both victims of the fire died from the effects of smoke and gas inhalation.

A multi-agency investigation into the circumstances of the fire focused on whether the company had regard to health and safety legislation in general, and specifically the obligations imposed under fire safety legislation to ensure the safety of employees and guests of the hotel.

Three separate failings were identified in the indictment against the company, which were:

  • Failure to have a safe system of work in respect of removal and disposal of ashes and embers from fires;
  • Failure to ensure that employees were given instruction, training and supervision in the safe removal and disposal of the ash and embers;
  • Failure to keep cupboards containing potential ignition sources free of combustibles.

On the first two points in 2016 fire risk assessors for the hotel highlighted the lack of written procedures regarding the clearing and disposal of ashes from open fires. The fire risk assessment made a clear recommendation that such a written policy should be developed and made available to hotel employees. Again in 2017 the same fire risk assessors observed that the recommendation they had made a year earlier had still not been implemented. The absence of any written procedures, and crucially ensuring that these procedures were appropriately communicated, created an environment for employees to improvise.

In relation to the conditions of the cupboard (a combination of possible sources of ignition and combustible items) on two separate occasions in 2017 the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service highlighted that standards were unacceptable as well as to the potential for the rapid spread of fire through the building due its age and the presence of voids. The Fire and Rescue Service were assured by the hotel management that the combustible items would be removed. This message was interpreted that the cupboard was to be tidied and the storing of combustible materials continued.

The Sherriff did not consider that there was a disregard for the advice and recommendations given (by the fire risk assessors and Fire and Rescue Service) but rather that these were wrongly, or incompletely, translated or interpreted. When the advice and recommendations were passed to those expected to implement them both the requirement and the means by which to achieve them were ambiguous.

Cameron House Resort (Loch Lomond) Ltd received a fine of £500,000, reduced from £750,000 due to them pleading guilty at an early stage, which avoided the potential for a lengthy and complicated trial. The fine imposed could however be subject to future appeal.

The night porter was sentenced to a 300-hour Community Payback Order (the statutory maximum of community service). A custodial sentence was avoided as the employee had not been provided with specific instruction which they had then failed to comply with (no deliberate disregard to the safety of others), and again due to pleading guilty at an early stage. In delivering sentence the Sherriff stated, with regards to the avoidance of a custodial sentence, ‘That is of course not any attempt by the court to diminish the tragedy which occurred here nor is it any indication that the court undervalues the distress caused to residents in the hotel and to other staff and the tragic loss of life…. It is rather a recognition that it was not remotely in your contemplation that anything you did … would have led to the catastrophe which in fact ensued’.

In summary the tragedy at Cameron House Hotel was entirely avoidable and should serve as a grim reminder to businesses that failure to implement the measures necessary to control health and safety and fire safety risks can have devastating consequences. Business owners must ensure that they clearly understand their health and safety obligations, that the appropriate controls and safeguards have been applied, and have been effectively communicated to all those responsible for following them. Finally it is essential that they make certain that their staff understand their health and safety responsibilities, are competent to do their jobs, that they positively demonstrate safe working behaviours and that decisive action is taken where it is evident that this is not the case.

If you have any questions on any of the issues raised in the above article, please contact Gary Foggo.

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