“Toxic puddle” costs Dunmow leisure company over £65,000

A leisure company responsible for a swimming pool horror incident in which a toddler received third degree chemical burns at an Essex swimming pool has been left with a bill of over £65,000.

Leisure Connections Ltd, who ran Uttlesford District Council’s Great Dunmow Leisure Centre, were fined £45,000 and ordered to pay £20,746 over the incident.

The injured two-year-old boy slipped on a “toxic puddle” left when a highly corrosive chemical was poured down a smelly drain in the swimming pool changing room, Chelmsford Crown Court was told.

The company pleaded guilty to a health and safety breach in respect of the accident on February 18 last year.

Although the boy’s father immediately pulled his son to his feet when he slipped, the child’s buttocks and back of his right thigh were already blistering “like a cheese grater”, the court heard.

The youngster, who for legal reasons cannot be named, was airlifted to Broomfield Hospital, Chelmsford, where he spent 10 nights. His serious injuries were third degree, full skin thickness burns from the caustic soda, or sodium hydroxide. He underwent skin grafts and has been left with permanent scarring, said Judge David Turner QC.

Leisure Connection Ltd – which was fined £90,000 in July this year over the fatal drowning of a child at Maldon Leisure Centre – had put the public at risk from its failure, he said.

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He continued: “That risk was foreseeable, significant and avoidable. The company failed properly to eliminate the risk which could have been achieved by relatively simple procedures in the use of the chemicals – protection of the immediate area. It didn’t have a proper system in place.”

He said the area wasn’t cordoned off when a staff member poured a substance called DB Stop down the drain, followed by water and then mopped the area.

The judge accepted that the accident wasn’t caused “by cutting corners, or to save time or money”.

But he said responsibility for cleaning drains in the changing area was unclear and was symptomatic of not having a proper system in place.

He pointed out that Leisure Connection was running a public facility where the public were “running about with bare flesh and bare feet”.

Leisure Connection Ltd was formed in March 2010 from a merger of other companies. It holds 22 national contracts on 60 sites, of which 47 are local authorities facilities. About 20 million visitors go through its doors annually.

Pascal Bates, prosecuting for the Health and Safety Executive, said the father and son were there for a 10am swimming lesson. He had seen staff pouring chemical down a drain on their way poolside. They were early and as they returned to the changing village he made sure his son walked around that drain.

Mr Bates continued: “But a little way further on the boy’s foot slipped and he sat down on his bottom. Although the father pulled him up immediately and he only was down for a few seconds, he started screaming.

“The father noticed there was a drain by where he had fallen. The boy’s leg felt rough, like a cheese grater.”

The chemical DB Stop, which was an approved product, contained 10 per cent caustic soda and was highly corrosive, said the prosecutor.

Passing sentence, Judge Turner said: “The little boy had only momentary contact with a toxic puddle which had developed as part of a cleaning process. The puddle had remnants of a strong cleaning fluid which was sufficient in seconds to burn this little boy very badly indeed.”

He said the child, now four, was still more fragile than he used to be at pre-school, more clingy and anxious. At times he had to avoid the sun. His sleep and night time routines were disturbed.

The judge continued: “He has suffered permanent scarring though mercifully it’s not envisaged any restriction of movement or long term function problem. There may of course be cosmetic and psychological issues continuing into the future.”

The family has launched a civil claim. Leisure Connection has admitted liability and discussions about a figure for damages is currently ongoing.

Mitigating for the company, Dominic Kay said it offered its sincere regret for what happened to the boy and his family.

Central management was not aware of the Dunmow centre’s local customs and practices, that the product was kept on site and used as and when the changing room drain became blocked and smelly.

“On the day of the accident DB Stop was not used properly and a puddle was left on the floor with the consequences for this young boy who sustained a nasty injury.

“The company accepts it was not just locally but a general failure.”

He added that Leisure Connection had gained two industry quality marks this year and was awaiting a third accreditation for health and safety.