Tragic death leaves a dark cloud over industry

The tragic death of catering engineer Jason Haslem has cast a very sombre shadow over the industry this week. I’m sure everyone was struck by a huge sense of sadness when they learnt the news.

In a tight-knit market community such as the catering equipment sector, there will be many people who knew or worked with Mr Haslem personally. And those who didn’t will certainly know of Acme, the established Blackburn-based kitchen service firm he was employed by.

This week the company described him as a “diligent and reliable” catering engineer who had progressed through its apprenticeship scheme and was a popular member of its team.

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Mr Haslem reportedly suffered a massive electric shock when he was working on an oven in an Oldham school kitchen last Thursday.

HSE inspectors are currently trying to establish why what appears to have been a routine job went so tragically wrong.

It is often overlooked just how hazardous the work of a catering equipment engineer can be.

Service and maintenance is usually the last thing that kitchen owners think about. Their perception of the sector doesn’t always tend to be particularly high and if something needs fixing they simply want it done as quickly as possible with minimum inconvenience.

Yet the reality is that engineers are dealing with heavy duty equipment worth thousands of pounds — equipment that is often mission-critical and has the potential to be extremely dangerous.

I can’t think of a single piece of mainstream kitchen equipment that doesn’t involve water, electricity or gas. Often it’s a combination of all three.

Out of those, the electrical element has always been heavily deliberated within the service side of the catering equipment industry, purely because there is no legal requirement for an engineer to hold any electrical qualification.

Any professional service company will, of course, make a point of ensuring engineers undertake electrical training, but technically they only have to be deemed competent by their employer.

As we all know, when it comes to gas, it’s an entirely different matter. There is much tighter regulation around the topic, authorities continue to beat the drum around the consequences of breaching safety laws and prosecutions are rife.

Yet some would argue things are the wrong way round. I recently heard the director of a catering equipment company make this very point during a discussion with engineers on safety and regulation.

“Is anybody aware of a gas fatality in living memory?” he asked. “I know of at least two fatalities in the last 10 years involving electrical equipment and yet we don’t need any professional qualification to play with this stuff.”

In November last year, an inquest heard how 62-year-old Phillipson Dodd died after suffering a massive shock from a microwave he was repairing at a Marks & Spencer store in Tunbridge Wells.

The jury returned a verdict of accidental death after hearing that Mr Dodds, who worked for Miller’s Vanguard, must have inadvertently touched a live electrical conductor when trying to repair and test the equipment.

He was a senior electrician with almost 30 years experience who had attended 109 call-outs to microwave repairs since 2005, when he started working for the Bury-based company. His last training on microwaves took place 18 months before the incident happened.

An HSE investigation showed that Miller’s Vanguard’s procedures, which set out that microwaves should not be worked on live (connected to electricity) and its ‘three D’ policy to “disconnect the mains, discharge the capacitors and open the microwave doors” had “unfortunately not been complied with”.

This was clearly nothing but a tragic accident, but that doesn’t make the call for a formal electrical qualification and mandatory renewable safety training any less valid.

Industry associations CEDA and CESA have made some headway in this area over the last 12 months by founding an electrical course written for the industry. Run by BG Training, it is framed squarely at commercial catering engineers and includes City & Guilds accreditation.

Getting something like that off the ground is a step forward, but it has not been easy. With no legal obligation for an electrical qualification, you can understand why companies might have been averse to sending employees on courses and incurring costs in the past.

There is nothing to indicate that greater regulation would make any difference to the number of workplace fatalities the industry has witnessed in the past decade — nor is there any suggestion whatsoever that this might have altered the course of last week’s tragic events.

It is simply a debate on standards that the industry needs to have.

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