Safety first

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 19 January, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 January, 1999, 12:00am

It only takes a short spell of bitter weather to bring tragedy to Hong Kong. Whenever there is a big drop in winter temperatures, the death rate increases among the sick and elderly. But the tragic accident in which a young man and a boy were asphyxiated because of a flueless gas water heater was entirely preventable if commonsense precautions had been observed.

Tenants who spend most of the year with windows wide open, or air-conditioners recycling indoor air, are perhaps unaware of the risks posed by a gas appliance even when it is functioning normally. But it was not the heater which caused the accident, but the conditions under which it was operated.

Cutting off the gas supply to hundreds or possibly thousands of households because of it is a massive overreaction, and will achieve nothing except to increase the discomfort that the cold weather has already caused.

While minds are concentrated on the incident, the most effective response is today's advertising drive, reminding people to ensure that all rooms containing gas appliances are well ventilated no matter how cold it becomes.

The accident is another example of why the Buildings Department must never be allowed to relax the present regulations so that developers can build windowless bathrooms. That strange concept, introduced last April, was fortunately rejected, and must not be allowed to resurface in the future.

If any modifications are made to building regulations in a city where gas appliances are so commonplace, it should be to ensure that all rooms containing water heaters not only have a window for ventilation, but also have an airbrick inserted into the wall during construction as an added safety precaution.

But the ultimate responsibility falls on the householder to ensure that all appliances are properly installed, function well and are used according to instructions.

And little can be done for those people so unmindful of their own safety that they now prevent Towngas from carrying out safety inspections.

But those who are more responsible may not be able to afford a new heater in the present economic climate, despite a generous price cut. Towngas would be doing a public service if it extended its offer for at least one year, or until the economy recovers.