Government scrambles as WorkSafe hides from multimillion dollar fire risk scandal

by Peter Newport - May 01, 2024

A Crux investigation that has revealed the sale of thousands of dangerous non-compliant heaters has left Government ministers scrambling for a response as WorkSafe officials refuse to explain why they failed to act on seven years of safety warnings.

Businessman Justin Sollitt has been telling WorkSafe since 2017 that Serene bathroom heaters were almost universally faulty. At one stage in 2019 he contacted the then Minister for Workplace Safety with full details of the risks, but Labour’s Iain Lees-Galloway sent the problem back to WorkSafe saying it was “an operational matter”.

At least 15 fires in New Zealand involving Serene appliances have been officially recorded but Crux understands that this might only be a small fraction of the problem. One Queenstown motel owner has told us that he had eleven Serene bathroom heaters – all had caused problems and one caught fire while he was in the same room.

Mr Sollitt has told Crux that the Serene bathroom heaters don’t comply with New Zealand safety rules due to the absence of double electrical insulation and an earth connection, but he has other safety concerns about the units as well.

The Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment has issued an expanded voluntary recall for a number of different Serene bathroom heaters and Crux understands that electrical wholesalers are starting to set aside millions of dollars to cover the cost of removing the Serene heaters and replacing them with another brand.

Mr Sollitt was the Australian distributor for Serene electrical products for a brief period prior to 2018, when he discovered that one delivery from the Serene Hong Kong factory was 100 percent faulty. Mr Sollitt had visited the “official” factory in Hong Kong before taking on the distributorship but noticed that the faulty Serene units were all from a different factory address.

ACT's Brooke van Velden is the current Workplace Safety Minister - a statement is expected soon

The Master Electricians organisation had talks with ACT leader and Minister for Regulation David Seymour on Sunday where their chief executive Alexandra Vranyac-Wheeler expressed their concern that the crisis had been allowed to develop.

A statement is expected to be made later today by ACT Workplace Safety Minister Brooke van Velden.

In the meantime, MBIE officials are making it clear that they consider this to be a WorkSafe problem. However, WorkSafe has not answered any of the questions sent to its communications and media team and calls to its main switchboard get cut off.

WorkSafe former chief executive Phil Parkes resigned last September. The agency has faced widespread criticism over its investigations, with its problems compounded recently by the dismissal of several charges in its landmark Whakaari/White Island prosecutions.

WorkSafe board chair Jennifer Kerr said Parkes had been "a strong voice for the need to collectively prioritise health and safety". Mr Parkes said at the time that work-related fatalities had dropped since 2013.

However RNZ reported that those drops have recently largely stalled, with both the PSA and the Business Leaders' Health and Safety Forum saying that fatality rates well ahead of those in the likes of Australia and the United Kingdom are not acceptable.

Mr Parkes personally received some of the detailed Serene heater warning letters sent to WorkSafe by Mr Sollitt. 

Serene Industries Ltd is still registered in New Zealand, but their main owner, Kiwi Christopher Woodward and his son Alex, are both are believed to have left the country. Attempts by Crux to contact Mr Woodward senior have not been successful. The company's website says that they are no longer trading in New Zealand as of November 2023.

Mr Sollitt confirms that the annual sales of these heaters could easily be in the range of up to 250,000 units per annum in New Zealand since 2015, confirmed through his association with Mr Woodward and his Serene New Zealand operations in determining the likely Australian market demand.

Plumbing World has been among the first suppliers to contact customers with an offer to cover the cost of a replacement unit and a qualified electrician to do the removal and installation work - as long as both jobs take place in a single visit. 

Anyone with a Serene bathroom heater is advised to leave it turned off and contact the local builder or retailer/wholesaler who supplied the unit.

Some suppliers are already offering to pay for not just a replacement unit but the cost to have an electrician carry out the removal of the Serene unit and installation of a new equivalent heater.

Read further Crux coverage:


Support Crux Support Crux