HC Deb 06 July 1984 vol 63 cc671-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Neubert.]

3.2 pm

Mr. David Amess (Basildon)

I am fortunate to be here today in one piece, as four weeks ago I very nearly became the victim of the subject of this Adjournment debate today—a glazing accident. As I approached a public house in my constituency, I walked straight bang into a plain glass window which I mistook for an opening. I should add that I did that before I had had a drink. Fortunately, the window was constructed from toughened glass and all that I sustained was an egg-shaped lump, largely due to my tough skull.

While discussing glazing accidents and the need for proper protection, I must place on record my thanks to Mrs. Carla Delaney, an enterprising and energetic young journalist, who has inspired me to investigate these matters and who has done a great deal of research on the subject. I also wish to thank the Yellow Advertiser newspaper group, which has decided to champion the cause. I draw my hon. Friend the Minister's attention to early-day motion 713, which has all-party support.

People generally believe that once they shut their front doors they are as safe as houses. But are they? Not if we look at the latest statistics of accidents in the home and, in particular, at injuries caused by glass doors and windows breaking. About 27,000 people need hospital treatment every year after accidents involving glazing in houses. Already this year, three people have died— a teenager in South Shields, a short-sighted person in Hereford and an epileptic in Newcastle. People are misled into believing that they are safe in their homes. Few people have taken the trouble to warn them of the dangers and advise them of the simple precautions that they could take to protect themselves.

There is no law requiring builders or designers to incorporate safety glazing in homes. Unsafe thin glass has been used for years in the vast majority of housing estates and developments throughout the country.

I became aware of the need for safety glazing after learning of a Basildon development corporation estate where the glazing is so thin that it breaks with the slightest knock. A constituent approached me after an 18-monthold child tumbled, bumped his head on the large window pane in the house and shattered the glass. Fortunately, the child escaped serious injury, but the family were alarmed by the remaining large jagged sections that hung ominously like a guillotine. They were further alarmed when a glazier said that the glass was fit only for picture frames and not as a protective screen. The estate was built a few years ago, but, according to the glazier, the dangers of installing large ground-to-ceiling windows and internal doors in glass as thin as 3mm or 4mm would have been known to designers at that time. Only in the past fortnight, there has been yet another accident on the estate involving a young child.

Like today, those designers were not bound by the law and had only a British standard to guide them. The standard has vastly improved since then and the current one is widely used in the building industry. However, it has shortcomings. I seek to resolve that problem.

According to BS 6262, public buildings should have safety glass to protect men, women and children, but it does not require safety glass to be used in homes in large, low-level areas vulnerable to breakage by children. It relies instead on protection by a barrier rail. Experts, including paediatricians Dr. Hugh Jackson of the Child Accident Prevention Trust, who has conducted vast studies into glazing accidents and served on the committee which formulated BS 6262, feel that the standard is inadequate and must in future take into account the fact that children spend a considerable time at home and are in constant danger if glazing remains unsafe.

When Dr. Jackson conducted a study for the British Medical Journal in 1981, he discovered that out of 62 injuries requiring children to be admitted to hospital, architectural glass inflicted the most serious injuries, affecting major arteries, nerve tendons and internal organs. He concluded that safety glass should be recommended for all glass doors, french windows, patio doors and the lower parts of windows.

Experience in the United States and Australia shows that after publicity campaigns legislation has followed and been widely accepted by the public. As a result of Carla Delaney's efforts, people in Basildon have generally set expenses aside, shown deep anxiety about her findings and reports of deaths and injuries and been worried enough to seek out safety glazing or safety films for windows to make their homes safer. Glaziers in the locality have been backing her efforts, and that processs proves the case for a national publicity campaign to urge the public to take heed of the warnings.

Although the British standard has not been included in the national building regulations, the Glass and Glazing Federation warns that architects will be liable for damages if an accident results from glazing installed below the new standard. In 1975, Matthew Kemper, a designer, was held to be liable because he was unable to show why the existing code had not been followed. Only this year an Appeal Court judge in the Rimmer case upheld a ruling that Liverpool city council was negligent in the glazing of a block of flats. Although the original design specified 6 mm glass, the council architect halved the specification to save money. The court decided that the decision created a dangerous feature and a foreseeable risk of accident, and awarded a victim £3,000 damages. The case is interesting, because the flats were built 25 years ago, long before glazing standards were introduced. The decision was deemed to be retrospective.

It is worrying that, although the new standard is widely accepted, some councils and builders go against it to save money. If the standard were made law, they would not be allowed to slide out of their responsibilities. If the standard is as widely used as the British Standards Institution believes, the cost of legislation would be minimal.

Designers should be encouraged to eliminate many of the doors and windows installed merely for decoration. It is possible for planners to locate them in less hazardous positions. Planners should be more aware of the dangers of large glazed windows. High windows are less likely to cause accidents. Architects should be encouraged to bear children in mind when they plan family developments such as those in my constituency.

There is a lack of public awareness of the risks presented by the use of ordinary household glass in the home and about the availability and properties of safety glass. According to a study by Bassetlaw district council, the common misconception is that ordinary annealed glass becomes safer the thicker it is. That is not so. A pane of 6 mm will break readily when hit by a moving body. Even 12 mm samples have been known to break under test conditions. BS 6262 relies heavily on the use of thick glass in many areas.

The way in which annealed glass breaks, and hence its capacity to injure, is the same no matter how thick it is, but the thicker it is, the heavier the pieces. Anyone who has seen how ordinary glass breaks into dagger-like pieces will know how lethal it can be. For that reason, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents firmly advocates that no annealed glass be allowed at low levels in the home, whether by standard or by law. BS 6262 has been condemned for allowing ordinary annealed glass in households, which accident data clearly show to be risk areas.

In the society's view, if a substance or material used by consumers or in consumer goods is potentially dangerous in its commonly available form, as in the case of glass, any safety requirement in a standard must involve a significant improvement in the safety of that substance or material. Otherwise, consumers are misled into believing that they are getting something which is other than the commonly available version, and once they realise this confidence in the standard will be lost.

My own near accident has convinced me of the need for the greater use of warning signs or labels in public places with large plate glass windows. That at least would help the short-sighted. Cost will be a sticking point, whether in the public or private sector. House purchasers are lured with sales brochures promising double glazing, fridge-freezers and luxury kitchens, so should not the building industry use safety features in its advertising blurb and include the cost of glazing in the overall price?

Although safety glass is expensive, I would expect more widespread use of a safety product eventually to make it cheaper to produce. There are various forms of safety glazing which will be familiar to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State. There is toughened glass, which is produced by subjecting annealed glass to heating and rapid cooling to produce a tough surface. The problem for the consumer is that once glass is toughened it cannot be cut or worked on and, therefore, has to be prepared to predetermined sizes. Delivery delays are often reported.

Laminated glass is constructed like a sandwich. Reinforced plastic material is bonded to two pieces of glass. Its degree of safety depends on the overall thickness of construction. It is easier to install than toughened glass because it can be cut to size after manufacture.

There are other products on the market, including plastic and a plastic safety film. Double glazed units come with safety glass fitted. Their safety obviously depends on the type of glass that is used.

Under the present code of practice, members of the Glass and Glazing Federation undertake to recommend to the public that they follow the safety requirements written into BS6262. However, there is nothing to prevent a nonmember, such as an unscrupulous DIY outlet, selling cheaper and inferior glass to those who are put off by expense. There should be one rule for all to prevent the public being misled. It is true that, when judged overall, glass accidents are not a common cause of death, but the accident figures are sufficiently high to warrant an urgent review.

3.17 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Sir George Young)

The House is grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess) for raising an important subject and giving the Government the opportunity to explain their thinking on a matter which is obviously of public concern. We are all delighted that my hon. Friend survived his encounter with the glass outside the pub. A by-election at Basildon would have been entered into with confidence by the Government at this stage of the Parliament, but it would have been sad to have lost the services of my hon. Friend so early in his political career.

Accidents involving glass can be horrifying and no one reading accounts of them could be indifferent to the effects that they have on the sufferers and their family and friends. I commend the good work that has been done by those to whom my hon. Friend has referred. If we are to take effective counter measures, it is necessary to consider the matter somewhat analytically. I know that my hon. Friend will not construe this approach as one that is lacking in compassion.

We must avoid rushing to take action which achieves nothing in practice but, by appearing to do so, merely diverts attention from the real issue. We must examine the information available about this type of accident and take our decisions accordingly.

I propose first to discuss briefly the nature of the problem, and the sources of information we have about it. Then I want to consider the ways in which the problem is already being tackled, and the effectiveness of those ways of tackling it. Finally, I should like to turn to the further steps we might take, some of which my hon. Friend hinted at, and in particular to the legislative or regulatory possibilities available.

First, how big is the problem and what do we know about it? The main source of statistics on accidents in the home is the home accidents surveillance system, which is maintained by the Department of Trade. The system makes use of a sample of 20 hospital accident and emergency departments selected to be representative of England and Wales. The information accumulated is assessed and analysed every three years: the most recent analysis available is for the period to 1981. Figures to 1984 have just been received and are now being scutinised.

The figures to 1981 suggest that up to that year the annual rate of non-fatal accidents in the home, connected with glass, which involved hospital treatment was around 27,000, or 2.5 per cent. of all home accidents. Fatal accidents are not recorded by the system, but from other sources it is estimated that out of 6,000 accidental deaths each year at home, about five are the result of accidents attributable of glass. Of course, five is five too many. In the great majority of cases the glass is in doors or windows and most typically the accidents occur to men between the ages of 10 and 29.

For more detailed analysis, we need to turn to work done by my Department's Building Research Establishment. The BRE examined the site of 50 accidents involving the use of doors and 15 involving windows. It found that the type of door most commonly involved consisted of two panels of glass separated around mid-height by a wooden rail. That finding is important when considering the scope of the relevant British standard, which I shall come to in a moment. It seemed to be the upper panel that was broken more often than the lower one, and most of the injuries were to the upper parts of the victims' bodies.

I shall move on now to the ways in which the risk is at present kept in check. There are no formal legal controls, as my hon. Friend said, but there is a good deal of voluntary self regulation—which has our strong support. The basic test for this self regulation—and indeed the basic test for any possible legal controls—is the British Standard code of practice on "Glazing for Buildings", BS6262 of 1982. This code is a very comprehensive document, giving recommendations for the design, installation and maintenance of vertically glazed glass and plastic glazing sheet materials for the external walls and interiors of buildings. This standard is not mandatory, but has been adopted by many local authorities, and the construction industry widely accepts it as good practice.

The Glass and Glazing Federation, which has carried out a great deal of valuable publicity on behalf of BS6262, has been instrumental in securing its acceptance. The federation has instructed its members in the retail trade that if they are asked for a sheet of glass in anything that looks like the size for a fully glazed door, they should ask the customer how he intends to use it. If it is for a door, they should point out to the customer the possible consequences of installing it—the frequency of accidents connected with glass doors, the relative ease with which ordinary annealed glass can be broken and the hideous wounds and lacerations which can be caused by the dagger-shaped pieces into which it breaks. Toughened glass costs the customer about three quarters as much again, or more, as annealed glass but, in general, the trade reports that customers accept it if the substantial benefits of safety glass are explained. The extra benefits are that the glass is very much more difficult to break and that when it does, it shatters, like a car windscreen, into small pieces which do not cut or stab as the shards of annealed glass do.

The National House Building Council, which makes and enforces standards for private housebuilding, has encouraged the use of safety glazing. In a recent newsletter to its members it has pointed out that a recent court judgment to which my hon. Friend referred, Rimmer v. Liverpool city council, could mean that a housebuilder who does not follow a British standard such as BS6262 may be guilty of negligence.

As to future action, the glazing standard BS6262, is now being reviewed in the light of the experience of the past two years. There has been criticism—from RoSPA, for example—of the adequacy of the safety aspects of this standard. The main criticism is that it does not require safety glass to be used in large low-level areas particularly vulnerable to breakage by children, relying instead on protection by a barrier rail. In other words, while the door which is fully glazed must use safety glass, a similar door with a barrier rail about mid-height is acceptable within the standard if glazed with ordinary annealed glass, although, as I mentioned earlier, the work by the BRE suggests that it is such doors which are commonly involved in accidents, the bottom of the door being the main high-risk area for children.

The review in progress is looking at the possibility of tightening up this aspect of the standard. Obviously in doing so, the code committee will have to make further study of accident data at a very detailed level.

At the moment, the evidence we have suggests that British standard 6262 does not deal with one of the main problems — that of annealed glass doors with barrier rails, and its inclusion in the building regulations as it stands could not be justified. After the revision of the standard to which I have referred, we will be able to consider whether to refer to the standard and make a new building regulation.

At that time we shall have to consider the disadvantages of safety glass as users might see them. Annealed glass is much easier to cut to size than safety glass: indeed, cutting safety glass is hardly within the scope of do-it-yourself. Doors with safety glass tend to be heavier, and to slam with more force. There might be an increase in other kinds of accidents. We know that heavy doors can cause great difficulties for old people and the disabled. Then there is the fire safety factor. Last year there was much concern —indeed an Adjournment debate—inspired by the fear that the increased use of safety glazing was increasing the risks of public being trapped in blazing rooms from which they would not escape through the windows. So the matter is by no means as easy and straightforward as it might at first appear, and there are some serious question marks over the standard and the contribution it can make to increased safety. However, if the review produces an effective standard, and shows that it would really reduce the risk of these horrible accidents the Government would, of course, be ready to take action.

I come to the third element of the subject — the possible control mechanisms. There are two: the building regulations and the consumer safety regulations.

The building regulations bite on new building only, and, at a replacement rate of 1 per cent. per annum of our building stock, building regulations on their own would not make a significant difference for a very long time. The real problem is with replacement by builders and DIY enthusiasts, and in that area consumer safety regulations under the Consumer Safety Act might operate. Even here, however, there are major areas where the regulations might not be too effective.

It would be made illegal to sell doors with annealed glass for fitting in those doors or in low-level windows, but such glass would remain freely on sale for use in other circumstances, and it would be impossible to prevent people buying it and using it where they should not. The temptation to do so would be strong, not only because of 'the substantial price difference — anything from three quarters as much again to two and a half times the price —but also because of the sheer physical difficulty of fixing safety glass.

Toughened glass, the cheapest sort of safety glass, cannot be cut by a DIY householder, or even by an ordinary glazier. Typically, the waiting period for a sheet of toughened glass in anything other than the standard sizes is three weeks from ordering to delivery. We are looking actively at the possibilities, and at the relative advantages and disadvantages. We shall take my hon. Friend's points into account. Both my Department and the Department of Trade and Industry are participating in the review of BS6262, and we shall take our decisions on the basis of its outcome.

Meanwhile, the Glass and Glazing Federation's efforts to educate the trade and consumers are continuing, and enjoy the Government's full support. They seem to be having a useful effect in raising general consciousness of the damages, and that can only be to the good.

I am sure that the publicity that my hon. Friend gets from his speech this afternoon will be an added factor in bringing home to people the risks they run in having the wrong sort of glass.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes past Three o'clock.