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April 27, 2010

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Co-op fined GBP 210k over “potential death trap”

A judge has castigated consumer-owned business giant, the Co-operative Group, for showing a lamentable approach to fire safety.

The organisation was served a £210,000 fine and ordered to pay costs of more than £28,000 after it pleaded guilty on 26 April to six breaches of the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005.

The offences were brought to the attention of Hampshire Fire and Rescue Authority after it carried out fire-safety inspections at one of the Co-op’s Southampton stores in September 2007. Among the oversights, the Authority found that the organisation had failed to keep the rear emergency-exit doors unlocked for easy egress in an emergency; and had fitted a lock requiring a security code on the emergency door between the retail and storage areas, which prevented the door from being easily opened in an emergency.

Officers also noted that the Group had failed to ensure that the store manager was given suitable and sufficient fire safety training; and had failed to ensure that the fire-alarm system underwent regular testing.

Southampton Crown Court heard that breaches also occurred at two other Southampton premises, and a store in Portsmouth. Summing up, Judge Barnett said the case demonstrated a lamentable approach to fire safety, and that the Co-operative Group had been responsible for a potential death trap, given the severity of the fire-safety failings.

Commenting on the type of problems it has witnessed in general since the Fire Safety Order came into force, the Authority’s chief officer John Bonney highlighted “blocked or locked exits; poorly maintained fire-escape staircases; lack of staff fire training; storage of combustible materials in boiler rooms; lack of fire alarms; lack of emergency lighting; lack of fire doors; and, in far too many cases, lack of suitable fire risk assessment”.

Speaking to SHP’s sister website, a spokeswoman for the Co-operative Group said: “As a responsible retailer, the Co-operative Group takes health and safety issues very seriously. At the time of these incidents, the Group was introducing substantially more stringent health and safety procedures, investing heavily – both in time and money – in all aspects of fire safety.

“The Co-operative Group deeply regrets the breaches but reiterates that its rigorous measures, now established and continually reviewed in conjunction with fire authorities across the country, ensure the safety of its valued customers and staff.”

In 2007, the Co-operative Group was fined what was then believed to be a record £250,000 for 13 offences under the previous Fire Precautions (Workplace) Regulations in six stores in East Sussex.

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