Whirlpool’s response to fatal dryer fire questioned
A CORONER in Wales said that the company’s ‘reluctance to digest inquest lessons’ is an ‘obstacle to preventing further deaths’.
The Guardian reported on the inquest into the deaths of Bernard Hender and Doug McTavish, who both died after a fire in their flat in Llanwrist, North Wales in October 2014. Coroner David Lewis recorded a ‘narrative verdict’, and ruled that the fire was ‘caused by an electrical fault in the door switch of a Hotpoint dryer. Mr Lewis later published a report for the ‘prevention of future deaths’, which was issued to Whirlpool, who produce Hotpoint machines.
In his report, Mr Lewis raised concerns that evidence given by witnesses called by Whirlpool lawyers in the hearing was both ‘defensive and dismissive’, adding: ‘The door switch assembly of interest in this case is used in literally hundreds of thousands of appliances manufactured by Whirlpool. I did not emerge from the hearing confident that Whirlpool’s risk assessment processes have fully identified or appreciated the extent of the risk of fire (and its potential consequences).’
Additionally, he noted that evidence from the company’s retired global product safety director Larry Latack, concerning the use of data ‘from the field’ including fires, was of ‘considerable concern’, stating: ‘I am concerned that the company’s reluctance to place due reliance on information coming forward in this way, and instead to prefer to take advice from itself, represents an obstacle to timely learning and a likely inhibitor to progressive steps which might prevent fires and save lives.’
Mr Latack’s evidence to the inquest included the following comment: ‘External experts are not credible sources to make safety decisions for consumers. The most credible person to make a decision on this dryer is the engineer who designed this dryer.’ In recent months, Whirlpool has faced criticism for its failure to recall up to one million dryers that pose a fire risk, and its range of appliances caused ‘three times more’ fires in London than any other manufacturer, according to London Fire Brigade data.
The company has until late December to respond to Mr Lewis’ report and ‘detail what action will be taken’, with a spokesperson commenting: ‘We extend our profound condolences to the families and friends of Bernard Hender and Douglas McTavish. Safety is always our number one priority. We treat all incidents extremely seriously and we have a robust process that continuously reviews the safety of all our products. We will carefully review and consider the coroner’s findings in this case.’
Thomas Jervis, representing the McTavish and Hender families, stated: ‘The families of Doug and Bernard want to make sure that no other families go through what they have had to and we hope that the coroner’s report will prompt swift and effective action from Whirlpool. We will continue to call for Whirlpool, and other manufacturers, to take action on potentially dangerous white goods and for an effective recall system to be implemented to prevent the devastating consequences of appliance fires.’
Alex Neill, managing director of home products and services for consumer group Which?, said: ‘The coroner’s report exposes the fundamental failings of Whirlpool’s handling of unsafe products. The government should urgently investigate if this is a breach of the company’s obligations under product safety law and immediately enforce a full product recall of all remaining fire-risk tumble dryers in people’s homes.
‘This case is further evidence that the UK’s product safety regime is simply not fit for purpose and must be reformed, with the creation of a new national body to lead on issues of this nature.’