Teenager set on fire while on school excursion

A teenage girl has been left with permanent scarring after she was engulfed in a fireball while using a cooking stove during a school camp trip.

The 15-year-old girl, who doesn’t wish to be named, was a pupil at East Ham’s Plashet School. Southwark Crown Court heard that she was one of 25 girls on a three-day Duke of Edinburgh Silver Award camping trip, near the village of Henfield, West Sussex.

An expedition leader from Newham Borough Council was in charge of the group, assisted by two teachers and a school administrator.

On 9 July 2011, the party was sitting in groups of three and four around several stoves, while food was being prepared for the evening meal. One of the girls wanted to cook some more food but thought the stove was going out. She picked up a five-litre container of methylated spirits and poured some on to the stove.

There was an instant flashover, with flames setting fire to one of the other girl’s clothes and headscarf. The expedition leader ran to the burning teenager and rolled her back and forth on the ground, while shouting for others to bring water and call the emergency services.

The leader beat the girl’s trousers with his hands in an effort to put out the flames and quickly removed her headscarf. A man from another group poured water over her face and she was continually dowsed with water until paramedics arrived. The girl, who suffered severe burns to her hands, arms, face, neck and legs, spent three weeks recovering in Chelmsford Hospital’s Special Burns Unit. She has since had a skin graft and has permanent scarring.

The HSE investigated the incident and found that some simple safety measures had not been taken. The Council conceded in court that the risk assessment it had carried out in relation to the filling of the cooking stoves was not adequate.

“A five-litre container of methylated spirits should never have been used to fill a camping stove,” he explained. “Any fuel needed for the trip should have been taken in containers incorporating a safety cut-off valve and kept away from ignition sources. There also should have been a better procedure to follow when filling, or refilling the stove.”

He suggested a safer method would have been to take the stoves to the fuel rather than the other way around, as this would mean the stoves were cold. Alternatively, replacement burners could have been used to avoid refilling ones that had already been lit.

An expert witness for the HSE also suggested that the use of extinguisher caps would have been a reliable method of removing the oxygen supply and ensuring that the burner was extinguished.

Newham Borough Council pleaded guilty to a breach of s3(1) of the HSWA 1974. Sentenced on 25 January, it was fined £15,000 and ordered to pay £17,246 in costs.

After the hearing, a spokesperson for the Council apologised to the girl for the injuries she sustained, adding: “We take our obligations towards health and safety very seriously and this is the first time that we have been prosecuted in relation to an incident involving a student participating in such an activity.

“We have taken immediate preventative action to ensure this type of incident should not happen again. Risk assessments have been thoroughly revised and we will not be using spirit stoves at any of our Duke of Edinburgh Award-scheme expeditions, or any other activities. Award-scheme expedition procedures and methods have been examined and revised where necessary.”

Summing up, an Inspector said: “This incident was avoidable and the failure to take simple safety measures has led to a young girl being unnecessarily scarred for life.

Councils, schools and voluntary groups that organise camping trips involving the use of highly-flammable stove fuel must ensure they implement effective precautions to prevent the ignition of fuel, or vapour.”