A Health and Safety Executive crackdown on safety in universities will aim at pinning responsibility on individuals, the HSE said last week.
The executive is visiting all universities over the next three years. Its priority is to check that universities have looked at their safety policies afresh and started a management system involving a "family tree" of dedicated people, with departmental visits and a review at the end of the year. This contrasts with the old piecemeal approach, a conference was told.
Richard Hill, principal inspector in HSE, said after the conference: "About half of the universities are at the point where they have had such a system in place for about a year. The other half have little in place and we want to persuade them to spend some time and money in getting it into place." Such universities may be served with a notice to start a system within six months, he said.
The conference was held by University College London and the HSE to describe the HSE's visits and to discuss UCL's new approach which follows the spirit of the change towards safety management.
Ron Wright, inspector from the HSE education group, east London, told the conference: "There has been a change in the tide of public opinion that is now seeking for individuals to be held accountable, for example in the Zeebrugge ferry, Marchioness (boat) and Lyme Bay (canoe) tragedies. If there are no arrangements in place, if there is no organisation, it doesn't require a lot of common sense to work out where our enquiries begin."
Alan Huggins, director of general administration at UCL, said that a signal of the HSE's new attitude towards individuals was its case against Clive Bird, chemistry lecturer at King's College London. Dr Bird was acquitted on Wednesday on charges of failing to cooperate with his employer in preparing a risk assessment of an undergraduate's work. The student seriously injured his left hand during an experiment.
Mr Hill said: "We have had recent cases in which things go wrong down the chain. Someone isn't complying with the policy. The way to stop that is to see key people down the chain to make sure that they are doing what the policy directs."