WorkSafe under pressure as government moves on fire risk heaters

by Peter Newport - May 08, 2024

A Crux Investigation.

After a delay of weeks the government is finally responding to the growing crisis around thousands of dangerous bathroom heaters that were sold for seven years in spite of repeated safety warnings to WorkSafe.

The Serene brand bathroom heaters do not comply with New Zealand safety standards and at least 15 appliances have caught fire according to official records. Crux understands the actual number is much higher.

At least fifteen Serene heater fires have been reported officially

The heaters are now the subject of a recall, with the appliance suppliers currently facing the decision of whether to take on the cost of replacement units and electricians to do the work.

The cost of the work is expected to run into many tens of millions of dollars. Currently nobody has reliable records of the number of heaters sold but estimates range from 75,000 units to more than one million.

Crux understands that many electrical suppliers are now filing Official Information Act requests focussed on what WorkSafe knew about the risks, as well as when and what - if anything - they did about them.

One Queenstown motel owner interviewed by Crux had eleven Serene bathroom heaters, all of which were faulty and one which caught fire while he was in the same room.

In a statement released to Crux ACT leader and Minister for Regulation David Seymour has said:

“I am aware of this issue and recently spoke to Master Electricians about it. While I don't hold ministerial responsibility for the matter, I have since followed up with ministerial colleagues on this issue and have been advised by Minister for Workplace Relations Brooke van Velden that WorkSafe has conducted an investigation into the matter.”

The government has indicated that further updates will come from Minister of Consumer Affairs Andrew Bayly, who is responsible for product recall and any associated liabilities.

This is the first mention by the government of the issue of liability and who, if anyone, may have to meet the cost of the Serene recall and replacement heaters.

The manufacturer and distributor of the products, Serene Industries Ltd, is no longer trading in New Zealand as of November 2023 and is uncontactable.

The business owners, Christopher Woodward and son Alex Woodward, are both New Zealanders currently believed to be in Hong Kong.

Christopher and Alexander Woodward, the two owner/directors of Serene Industries Ltd.

Businessman Justin Sollitt started warning WorkSafe in 2017 of risks associated with Serene heaters. Mr Sollitt knew of the risks in some detail as he had been the Australian Serene distributor prior to discovering that up to 100 percent of Serene units delivered to him from the Hong Kong factory were faulty.

Mr Sollitt says all of his warnings to WorkSafe were ignored including one detailed safety study that was copied to then Minister Iain Lees-Galloway.

In a response to Crux WorkSafe has claimed that Mr Sollitt only warned of the risk of electric shock, not of the fire risk.

“The earth connection and double installation concerns raised by Mr Sollitt related to an alleged risk of electric shock. WorkSafe assessed the information Mr Sollitt provided and could not establish a risk of electric shock associated with these products," a member of WorkSafe's communications team said in a written response.

"WorkSafe assessed and responded to Mr Sollitt’s concerns whenever he contacted us and we encourage him to continue to reach out."

Mr Sollitt has strongly rejected this statement and a copy of his letter to WorkSafe in 2019 clearly identifies the fire risk and detailed what at that stage were 12 Serene appliance fire incidents, two of which Mr Sollitt says were “near fatalities”.

Some Serene appliance owners have told Crux that their supplier has offered a full equivalent replacement heater and the cost of one electrician’s visit to remove the Serene unit and install the new one. Some owners have only been offered a replacement heater with no contribution towards the work of an electrician.

A burnt out Serene bathroom heater (Image/FENZ).

Another company that has sold wholesale Serene appliances to electricians and builders suggests that they are not liable at all for installation and removal work and each buyer needs to take their own legal advice.

On its website, the Ideal/Rexel Group says these sorts of removal and reinstalling costs "would usually be the responsibility of the product manufacturer – Serene – who is no longer operational in New Zealand".

"Ideal is not responsible for uninstallation/reinstallation costs - the Consumer Guarantees Act does not apply to Ideal’s supply to our customers, being the electrical contractors.

"You (the electrical contractor) should get your own legal advice on whether the Consumer Guarantees Act applies to your supply to your customer."

MBIE is in the process of contacting companies that have sold Serene heaters to help manage the recall process.

Mr Sollitt's extensive correspondence with WorkSafe over the past seven years looks likely to put pressure on WorkSafe (or another government agency) to step into the current situation in terms of liability and costs.

Main image: A burnt out Serene bathroom heater.

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