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Hong Kong environmental issues

Has that leaking air-con unit been fixed? Even the hygiene department’s assessment is just a guess

Systematic failings of staff highlighted by Ombudsman’s six-months-long inquiry

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 April, 2018, 5:02pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 April, 2018, 3:49pm

A damning report into Hong Kong’s hygiene department has criticised systematic failings and “totally unacceptable” behaviour – including investigators routinely relying on guesswork during inquiries into health complaints.

A six-month investigation into the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department over its handling of public health complaints about the city’s air-conditioning units found some cases had gone on for years without being resolved.

The Office of the Ombudsman report, released on Tuesday, criticised department staff for routinely guessing at findings during their investigations, for “multiple inadequacies” and conducting inspections that ultimately proved to be “futile and a waste of efforts”.

“It’s totally unacceptable for the department’s staff to count on guessing in handling residents’ complaints,” Ombudsman Connie Lau Yin-hing said.

More than 200 complaints have been lodged against the watchdog over its failure to properly handle public concerns between 2013 and 2017, an issue that the Post highlighted some three years ago.

In that story, the Post highlighted the lack of effective action taken by the government department in combating the issue. The weight of complaints, however, finally forced the Ombudsman to act.

Among the worst cases the investigation uncovered was of a problem that remained unresolved five years after the complaint was first made.

A spokesman for the hygiene department said a total of 94,183 complaints on air-conditioning units dripping were filed to the department between 2013 to 2017, among which only 8,732 – or less than 10 per cent – were confirmed and had the Nuisance Notice issued to the people responsible.

Failures identified in the report included department staff relying on making observations about a complaint from outside a building, failing to do on-site inspections at the time the complaint came in, and failing to sufficiently follow up on the complaints once the weather had turned cooler, leaving the problems to reoccur.

In another case, a woman complained to the department in July 2016 about water dripping from her upstairs neighbour’s air conditioner. Some four months later hygiene department staff had still not entered the flat to examine the machine in question, despite the problem continuing for several months.

Instead of applying for a warrant of entry from the court, as their own department’s guidelines require them to, staff concluded the tenant of the upstairs flat had fixed the air conditioners because they did not see any water dripping, while looking from the outside.

Dripping air conditioners trigger tidal wave of complaints across Hong Kong

“This is not an isolated incident among the cases we have collected,” Janice Tang Wing-sum, an assistant investigation officer at the Office of the Ombudsman, said.

“By the time our investigation finished, it remained unclear if the complaint in the case had been resolved.”

In a third incident, the Ombudsman slammed the department’s handling of a case as “destined to be futile and a waste of efforts”. 

A complainant had reported dripping at about 6.45am from an old building, housing both commercial and residential units. But of the 19 on-site inspections that department staff carried out, only four were in the early morning. 

The staff found that of the 100 air conditioners facing the footpath on the building, four were dripping, while another 10 were believed to have a similar defect. 

Staff conducted the inspections between May and September last year and, by the time of the report, seven of the 10 suspected cases were still “being followed up” by the department, according to Tang.

Tang said: “If they conducted inspections at the time reported by the complainant, they could have determined the situation with one visit instead of 19.”

The report recommended officials be required to enter premises to test the air conditioners, conduct inspections as close as possible to the time a complaint is made, set a reasonable standard duration for testing air conditioners, and continue investigations on cases not yet concluded by late summer or early autumn.

It was also suggested the department consider publicising the benefits of installing communal drainage pipes at buildings, so tenants can drain water from their air conditioners. 

A department spokesman said it had four squads that specialise in handling these types of leaks and would double this to eight squads this summer.

The department also promised to update its guidelines for staff, to remind them to seek entry to flats identified in complaints, even when they did not see any dripping from outside.

A standard duration for testing the air conditioners in question would also be set up, and made public by the end of 2018, the spokesman said.