COSHH Breach ‘lax enforcement of standard operating procedures’ as contributing factor in biomedical scientist’s death

COSHH Breach ‘lax enforcement of standard operating procedures’ as contributing factor in biomedical scientist’s death

Last December, Southwark Crown Court fined Imperial College London and Chelsea and Westminster NHS Trust a total of £150,000 in fines after a researcher died in a lab whilst working on an Aids vaccine. He had been using liquid nitrogen to freeze blood samples ahead of transportation.

The geneticist and biomedical scientist, was working late and alone on the night of 27 October 2011 St Stephen’s Centre laboratory, which had been rented to Imperial College London to carry out the research. Despite wearing full protective clothing including a visor, protective gown and cryogenic gloves, the scientist could not be protected from the nitrogen which, once in the air in a small room, can rapidly make it unbreathable.

Judge Michael Grieve QC said the fines were lower than sentencing guidelines because Imperial College and the Trust are not private profit-making institutions and provide a public service. Both institutions admitted two counts breaching general duty to an employee.

Jurors at the inquest criticised ‘insufficient control, unclear responsibility…as well as lax enforcement of standard operating procedures’ as contributing to the scientist’s death.

COSHH stands for ‘the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health’ and under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002, employers need to either prevent or reduce their workers’ exposure to substances that are hazardous to their health. Almost all industries are affected by COSHH as most organisations deal with potentially harmful substances including chemicals, products containing chemicals, fumes, dusts, vapours, mists and gases, and biological agents (germs). If packaging has any of the hazard symbols then it is classed as a hazardous substance.

The HSE has a free downloadable guide called ‘Working with substances hazardous to health’ – which is a brief overview of COSHH.

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