Better safe than prosecuted

August 4, 1995

David Wenham gives some tips on laboratory safety proceedures.

The prosecution of a university reader following an accident during an undergraduate chemistry project created much interest and probably some anxiety among those responsible for supervising students conducting experimental or other practical work.

In this case a third-year student lost part of a thumb and finger as a result of an explosion while isolating azide residues (which are well known for decomposing explosively) during a chemical synthesis.

The case collapsed after three days with the judge directing the jury to acquit the defendant.

However, the case has highlighted the share of the responsibility for health and safety borne by the employer (in this case the university) and that of individual members of staff. It has also emphasised that the Health and Safety Executive will seek to prosecute individuals as well as corporate bodies.

Since January 1993 all employers (and the self-employed) are legally obliged to conduct a suitable and sufficient assessment of the risks to the health and safety of employees and also of any other person who is affected by the employer's activities (Regulation 3 Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1992).

In education, the latter includes students on campus, whether or not they are in classes under the supervision of a member of staff. The significant findings of the assessment should be recorded in a form which is easily retrievable for examination by an enforcement officer or other authorised person.

The reader was prosecuted for a breach of Section 7b of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 which requires an employee, while at work, to co-operate with his or her employer, so far as is necessary to enable the employer to discharge his or her duties.

The university had a designated form for recording assessments by the member of staff responsible for supervising the student. However, it was alleged that the lecturer concerned had not completed such a form and thereby had not conducted a suitable and sufficient risk assessment in accordance with the university's established procedures. This had allegedly rendered the university in breach of the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations.

What then constitute the key elements of an assessment of an undergraduate experiment?

The approved code of practice that accompanies the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations advises that in most cases the first step is the identification of hazards.

Second, the risk associated with each hazard should be estimated. The risk reflects how likely it is that harm will occur and if it does what is the likely extent - would it result in a minor cut or a broken arm, and would it affect one person or ten? In the case of substances this would include regard of how the substance is used or prepared, in what amounts and under what conditions.

Data on the properties of hazardous substances is contained in well known texts such as Handbook of Reactive Chemical Hazards by Bretherick.

This, together with a knowledge of research literature on the subject, will assist considerably with the assessment.

The competence of the student(s) is an important factor of such an assessment. Completion of the experiment by the supervisor before the student makes an attempt may highlight other hazards associated with the procedure. The assessment will include a consideration of the competence of a particular student in addition to how far on the student is in his or her programme of study.

Supervisors might have to exclude a student from performing a particular experiment simply because he or she lacks the manipulative skills and care necessary to compete it safely.

The third element is the identification of the control measures used to minimise the risk. In laboratory work these may include the use of a fume cupboard to minimise exposure to toxic gases and the wearing of protective equipment such as eye protection.

If the experiment involves original research, by perhaps the preparation of a new compound, then a higher degree of control would be appropriate until more knowledge became available. A fundamental control measure in all experimental work is the level of supervision of the student by competent staff, which should reflect the magnitude of the risk.

It may seem that to complete a suitable and sufficient risk assessment is virtually an impossible task given the large number of variables that have to be considered. However it is important to recognise that risk assessment is not an absolute science in which we can predict with certainty the outcome of any complex activity.

Risk assessment is not new and is a process we all conduct on a daily basis, for example, crossing the road. What is crucial to an adequate assessment is the ability to be able to demonstrate that reasonable steps have been taken to identify the hazards, assess the risks and identify control measures on the basis of existing knowledge.

The record of the assessment should include the significant findings. However it is important not to file this record away, but to ensure that it is fully understood by the students and staff who are at risk.

The Health and Safety Executive will be visiting all universities over the next three years to assess how health and safety is managed and this inevitably will include procedures for risk assessment.

Once a university has introduced an adequate system, supervisors should ensure they comply with the system or they may find themselves at risk of a personal prosecution.

David Wenham is a lecturer in health and safety management at Loughborough University of Technology.

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