Your garden walls: better to be safe – local authority prosecuted after wall collapses onto child

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Local authority prosecuted after wall collapses onto child

A local authority was sentenced last month after a brick boundary wall it part-owned collapsed and seriously injured a six-year-old girl.

Details of the Crown Court hearing reveal how, in August 2016, a wall spanning the back of two houses at a town in Essex collapsed onto the girl during a family barbecue. She was placed in an induced coma after sustaining serious and life-threatening injuries. She was in intensive care for 7 days and in hospital for 10 days in total. She has made a good recovery but still suffers some physical and emotional problems.

An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found the local authority failed to take any action after receiving concerns about the wall’s condition from private tenants, two years prior to the incident. Wider concerns about the poor condition of brick walls in the vicinity, including council-owned walls, were not passed to building control or the Council’s inspections teams.

The local authority failed to implement a system of intelligence-led inspection, maintenance and repair, to adequately identify and remedy the risks of collapses to boundary walls, both owned solely by the Council, or jointly with private residents.

The local authority pleaded guilty to breaching Section 3(1) of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and has been fined of £133,333 and ordered to pay costs of £21,419.55.

Speaking after the case, an HSE inspector said: “This was a wholly avoidable incident which could easily have been fatal. If [the local authority] had properly recorded residents’ concerns about the state of the walls, then a suitably qualified individual could have been engaged to identify the level of risk and instigated the required remedial action. Despite the low frequency of wall collapses, they are high consequence events requiring those with the responsibility for structural safety to take proactive measures to ensure that boundary walls and other structures are safely maintained.”

Your garden walls: better to be safe

(Information on inspecting garden and boundary walls, published on 13 May 2013, by the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government)

If you are an employer, or someone in control of premises, including landlords, the below information is relevant to you. Eljay Risk Management carries out Health and Safety Inspections of commercial and domestic premises, and we include checks of garden/boundary walls in our reports. Why not contact us for a no-obligation quote.

Garden walls

Garden and boundary walls should be inspected from time to time to see if any repairs are necessary, or whether a wall needs rebuilding. Such walls are amongst the most common forms of masonry to suffer collapse, and they are unfortunately one of the commonest causes of death by falling masonry. Your insurances may not cover you if the wall has been neglected.

Besides the general deterioration and ageing of a masonry wall over the years, walls may be affected by:

  • an increase in wind load or driving rain if a nearby wall is taken down
  • felling of nearby mature trees or planting of new trees close to the wall
  • changes leading to greater risk of damage from traffic
  • alterations, such as additions to the wall or removal of parts of the wall e.g. for a new gateway

Things to check

  1. Is the surface of the brickwork crumbling away?

If restricted to a few bricks this may not be serious but walls can be weakened by general crumbling across either face.

  1. Is the mortar pointing in good condition?

If the hard surface layer can be picked out from the joint, or if the mortar can easily be scraped out with, say, a door key, then this is a good indication that the wall may need repointing.

  1. Is there a tree near the wall?

As trees mature, there is a risk of the wall being damaged by the roots, and from wind-blown branches. Damaged sections may have to be re-built, perhaps with bridges incorporated to carry the wall over the roots. Removal of large trees can also lead to problems because the soil accumulates more moisture and expands.

  1. Is the wall upright?

Walls lean for a variety of causes, due for example to failure below ground caused by tree roots, a cracked drain, frost damage to the foundations or inadequate foundations. If your wall leans to an extent that could present a danger e.g. more than 30mm (half brick wall), 70mm (single brick wall) or 100mm (brick and a half wall) it is recommended that expert advice is sought. This may involve checking of the wall foundations.

  1. Is the wall thick enough for its height?

The map and table at https://www.gov.uk/guidance/your-garden-walls-better-to-be-safe give guidance on how high walls should be in different parts of the UK relative to their thickness. Seek expert advice if your wall exceeds the recommended height, or in circumstances whereby this guidance is inapplicable e.g. walls incorporating piers, or walls supporting heavy gates or retaining soil.

  1. Some climbing plants, like ivy, can damage walls if growth is unchecked.

Consider cutting them back and supporting regrowth clear of the wall.

  1. Is the top of the wall firmly attached?

Brick cappings or concrete copings may be loose or there may be horizontal cracks (frost damage) in the brickwork a few courses down. Loose or damaged masonry near the top of the wall will need to be rebuilt.

  1. Has the wall been damaged by traffic?

Minor scratch marks or scoring of the surface may obscure more significant cracks. Piers at vehicular entrances may have been dislodged by impact and be unsafe; in such cases they should be rebuilt.

  1. Are there any cracks in the wall?

Hairline cracks (0-2mm across) are common in walls and may not indicate serious problems. For wider cracks seek expert advice; some may indicate a need for partial or complete rebuilding. Seek advice on any horizontal cracks which pass right through a wall or any cracks close to piers or gates. Repointing of cracks can lead to problems. Do not repoint without establishing the cause of the cracking.

If you have any queries at all regarding the above, please don’t hesitate to contact us on 07896 016380 or at fiona@eljay.co.uk, and we’ll be happy to help.

Contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0.

 

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