Expert: WorkSafe 'buffoons' allowed over a million fire-risk heaters to be sold

by Peter Newport - Apr 26, 2024

A Crux investigation

An electrical appliance expert has told Crux that he warned WorkSafe for more than seven years that Serene bathroom heaters were a serious fire risk, prior to multiple models being recalled last week. It could now cost more than $200 million to remove and replace the faulty heaters with nobody yet identified as the organisation liable to pick up the cost.

Justin Sollitt, who was previously the distributor of Serene products in Australia, says that his detailed warnings to WorkSafe, right up to chief executive and ministerial level, have been ignored while up to 250,000 Serene heaters have been sold in New Zealand each year.

Mr Sollitt says that there are now potentially more than one-million of the faulty heaters in the market. Industry experts estimate the cost per unit to remove and replace could be from $350 to $500, meaning that the worst-case national cost could be in excess of $500 million.

In describing his relationship with WorkSafe Mr Sollitt tells Crux, “The whole experience is bewildering and just disbelief".

"I’ve told them, 'You're just buffoons, you're inept'. You know, this is how Pike River happened; I can see now how Pike River happened - the only difference between the situation we have now, which is just a commercial recall, and charges of criminal negligence, is the fact that we just haven't had a death yet.”

The Electrical Contracting Association of New Zealand (Master Electricians) is seeking an urgent meeting on Monday with the Minister responsible for Regulation, David Seymour, as well as Chris Penk, as Minister for Building and Construction. In a statement to be sent to all Master Electricians members on Monday, chief executive Alexandra Vranyac-Wheeler says:

"Our initial research around the responsibility for costs of replacement and/or reinstallation costs has opened up the need for further investigation into the matter, as there is a multitude of scenarios which need to be looked into. We appreciate your patience while we ensure we get you the right information.

"In the urgent meetings we have arranged with the Ministers mentioned above, we will be highlighting as top priority the regulatory shortcomings that have allowed this issue to arise, and providing our recommendations as to how these shortcomings might be corrected for the benefit of the electrical sector and consumers."

Serene Industries Ltd Christchurch HQ - now closed.

There are officially 15 reported instances of the Serene heaters catching fire but the actual number may be much higher. Crux has spoken to one motel owner in Queenstown who says of the eleven Serene heaters he has all eleven have been faulty with one catching fire while he was in the same room.

Mr Sollitt told Crux that after he had signed the Australian distribution deal back in approximately 2015 he visited the distributor in Hong Kong, Christopher Woodward of Serene Industries Ltd, as well as the factory, to check on quality and safety. He says the paperwork and factory checked out but that the first units to arrive in Australia appeared to be from a different factory.

Christopher James Woodward is listed on the Companies Register as a director of Serene Industries Ltd along with his son Alexander Woodward. Mr Woodward senior is a New Zealander formerly based in Auckland and Christchurch. He is now believed to be based in Hong Kong but did not respond to any of our attempts to contact him by phone and email.

Christopher and Alexander Woodward of Serene Industries Ltd - now not contactable and no longer trading in New Zealand, but their company is still registered here.

After multiple complaints from his Australian retailers and electricians Mr Sollitt decided to check on a delivery from Serene’s factory and found 100 percent of the units to be faulty. He then ended the relationship with Mr Woodward and Serene.

The Serene website now includes a note that all New Zealand trading has ceased.

The Serene website now says that their New Zealand business is closed.

Mr Sollitt, a New Zealander based near Auckland, had in 2017 already started to warn WorkSafe about the faulty heaters. He wrote this letter to Energy Safety New Zealand, part of WorkSafe, on December 10, 2019. In his letter Mr Sollitt includes a large amount of clear technical detail along with the graphic warning, “These Serene products are an accident waiting to happen”. He also wrote to the then Minister for Workplace Safety Iain Lees-Galloway. The minister replied to Mr Sollitt advising him that he considered this to be an operational matter best handled by WorkSafe.

In 2021 Mr Sollitt stepped up his safety campaign in an attempt to get WorkSafe to listen to his case. He wrote on May 25, 2021 direct to the chief executive of Worksafe, Phil Parkes, 

WorkSafe and Energy Safety NZ however continued to claim that Mr Sollitt’s warnings did not require any action. This was in spite of Mr Sollitt even sending specially dismantled Serene heaters to be tested by a team led by Paul Kauder, WorkSafe’s technical officer, energy safety, high hazards, energy and public safety based in Christchurch.

Crux spoke with Mr Kauder today but he said that he was not permitted to speak with media. We asked for Mr Kauder’s assistance on contacting WorkSafe’s media team, who had not responded to multiple emails from Crux. Mr Kauder said he would do this “as a favour”.

Late this afternoon (Friday, April 26) Crux did receive this reply from WorkSafe:

“Apologise as those with knowledge of this are on annual leave, but we can provide this:

"WorkSafe’s Energy Safety team regulates the safe supply and use of electricity and gas in Aotearoa, including the safety of electrical and gas appliances. The team has had regular correspondence with Justin Sollitt over time.

"Energy Safety carried out certification audits on all of the Serene appliances of concern to Mr Sollitt. These audits were to ensure that the products had appropriate testing and certification.

"We took action in response to one bathroom mirror, which Serene could not provide compliance documentation for.

"Mr Sollitt’s concerns were different in nature to those which led to the recent prohibition of the S2068 wall mounted bathroom heater. His concerns from 2017 onwards have been addressed.

"The first failure of an S2068 was notified to Energy Safety in June 2021, which we investigated as an isolated incident. Once a pattern of similar incidents emerged, Energy Safety opened a wider investigation in May 2022. This investigation took time as it was technically complex and comprehensive.”

Source: WorkSafe media team. April 26, 2024.

Three of the faulty heaters found this week in one Queenstown house built in 2021.

Responding to questions from Crux, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment provided the following statement:

“MBIE will be able to provide a more detailed account of our awareness of Mr Sollitt’s contact with WorkSafe when the officer with that institutional knowledge and expertise returns from leave on Monday.

“However, from information at hand today, Mr Sollitt has not been in ongoing contact with MBIE, either directly or via WorkSafe.

Source: MBIE Business specialist, Ian Caplin.

Crux understands that some electrical wholesalers are already putting provisions of millions of dollars aside to deal with the Serene problem.

Lawyers and insurance industry sources have advised Crux that it is usually the importer that would be liable for a situation of this type, but if the importer can’t be contacted the situation becomes a lot more complex.

The Insurance Council of New Zealand issued this brief statement:

“The safety of the homeowner and their family and the safety of their home is the topmost priority in situations like this.

"Homeowners should follow the advice given by WorkSafe to check the make and model of the heater in their bathroom.

"If it is one of the heaters identified as unsafe, do not use it. You should contact an electrician to arrange its removal if you cannot unplug it from a wall socket.

"If you are in doubt, check with your insurer.”

WorkSafe’s advice includes this guidance on refunds and replacement:

"The Consumer Guarantees Act (CGA) guarantees that products must be of acceptable quality, including safe to use and fit for purpose.

"Where a product is not of acceptable quality, you have the right to a refund, repair, or replacement.

"MBIE recommends that consumers who have the S2068 contact the business they purchased it from to arrange for its return under the CGA.

"Consumers who have the S2069 or S207T and are concerned may also wish to contact the supplier to seek a remedy under the CGA.

"For more info see Product safety | Consumer Protection"

Here is the full information page from WorkSafe.

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