Universities and colleges have been accused of putting staff and students in jeopardy after a series of breaches in health and safety laws.
In one case, a radioactive gun went missing presumed "lost or stolen" while another involved the creation of a genetically modified virus from the hepatitis-C virus and Dengue fever without proper controls.
Research by The Times Higher has revealed that government watchdogs monitoring safety in the workplace took action against academic institutions on 55 occasions in the past three years. Imperial College London was the most persistent offender.
Since 2001, the Health and Safety Executive has brought eight successful prosecutions against universities for breaches of health and safety laws, issued 42 improvement notices and issued five "immediate prohibition notices" to halt dangerous practices.
Concerns range from the inappropriate handling of dangerous substances and unexpected explosions in a laboratory, to more routine breaches through inadequate risk assessments.
Andy Pike, a senior official at lecturers' union Natfhe, said: "Sadly, the experience of many in higher education is that health and safety is all too often seen as an optional extra. If employers continue to expect academic staff to work for pitifully low pay, the least they should do is ensure that proper health and safety measures are in place."
In December 2002, City of Bristol College was fined £3,000, and asked to pay £2,000 costs, for a breach of the ionising radiation regulations. The HSE reported that "a radioactive source went missing, believed to be lost or stolen". The college said this week that the item, from its motor vehicle and transport department, was a gun with low-radiation levels designed to control static electricity during spray painting.
In July 2001, Imperial was fined £25,000 and £22,000 costs over its handling of a research project to construct a hybrid virus using genetic-modification techniques. The HSE said that the college was using safety measures "that fell well short of those that had been agreed".
In March 2001, the college was fined £20,000 for a "failure to seal an HIV laboratory for fumigation". More recently, in May 2002, the college was issued with an improvement notice after a gardener lost the tips of his fingers when he was cleaning a lawn mower that did not have safety instructions and had not been subject to a risk assessment.
Also in 2003, the HSE concluded that the college had breached its rules over the handling of a biological toxin, but did not issue any enforcement action.
An Imperial spokesman said: "The college has stringent policies and procedures in place to regulate its activities and provide a safe working environment for staff, students and visitors. It takes its health and safety responsibilities very seriously and has taken steps to ensure that all staff are aware of their individual responsibilities. Extra staff devoted to monitoring and advising on safety in the college were recruited in 2001."
In February last year, the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology was fined £18,500 and made to pay £5,000 costs after an explosion in a laboratory. The HSE reported that during a test on a pressure vessel in the department of electrical engineering and electronics, excessive pressure was inadvertently applied and the vessel exploded.
"No one was injured, although a technician standing in the immediate vicinity could have been seriously or even fatally injured had he been standing in front of the vessel instead of behind it," the HSE's records say.
In another case, Wolverhampton University was fined £10,000 and £1,500 in costs, in May 2002, after a student suffered "multiple injuries" after falling off an elevated work platform, according to the HSE. She had been using it without the proper safety fittings and had been given minimal instruction on how to use it safely.
Helen Symons, convener of the National Union of Students' welfare campaign, said: "The safety of students and staff must be of paramount importance at all universities and colleges. There is never an excuse good enough to explain why anyone's life is put at risk. If any students feel they are working or living in an unsafe environment I urge them to contact their student union for advice."
Clive Parkinson, health and safety adviser to the the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, said that he did not believe vice-chancellors were complacent, and since the sector represented 320,000 staff and 1.3 million students, action by the HSE was relatively rare compared with other industries.