Sector's safety record slated

July 14, 2006

Breaches in the law, two resulting in deaths, have led to prosecutions and fines, reports Phil Baty

Universities and colleges were accused of neglecting the safety of their staff and students this week after a series of breaches of health and safety laws.

Research by The Times Higher into the Health and Safety Executive's archives shows that 14 successful prosecutions have been brought against universities and colleges since 2000, leading to payouts totalling more than £200,000 in fines and legal costs.

This week, St Andrews University was fined £5,000 after a non-fatal electrical explosion on campus earlier in the year. And The Times Higher has learnt that there have been a further 178 cases in other universities where rules were breached and orders were made to improve practices, but no legal action was taken.

Breaches include two cases that resulted in fatalities; a non-fatal incident in which a gamekeeping student at a specialist college was "shot in the head"; the "loss" by a college of a radioactive source; and incorrect controls over a dangerous virus.

But universities have a much better health and safety record than workplaces generally, according to the Universities and Colleges Employers'

Association health and safety group. The latest figures show that the national rate of reportable injuries was 510 per 100,000 staff, compared with 320 per 100,000 employees in the higher education sector.

But unions say that there is no room for complacency in a sector where staff and students have access to a range of potentially dangerous and noxious substances and equipment.

Roger Kline, head of equality and employment rights at the University and College Union, said: "These figures show that a significant number of universities and colleges do not place sufficient priority on health and safety. Every accident is one too many.

"Over the next year, the UCU will be mounting a major campaign to remind institutions of their statutory responsibilities. In particular, we will be reminding employers of the need to conduct risk assessments and consult safety representatives."

Among the successful prosecutions mounted by the HSE was one against Myerscough College, an agriculture-based further and higher education college in Preston. The HSE's records state that the college was fined £7,000 with an additional £5,000 costs, after a gamekeeping student was shot in the head during a clay-pigeon shoot in 2002. The HSE highlights "poor management control" of the event, including failure to follow explicit safety guidance from the Clay Pigeon Shooting Association.

Joe Lamont, director of curriculum at the college, said the student had recovered fully. He said that risk assessment and supervision of such events was now much tighter.

Other cases involved Wolverhampton University being fined £10,000 after a student "suffered multiple injuries" when a "mobile elevated work platform" that she was using to adjust theatre lighting as part of a drama course "overturned".

Anglia Polytechnic University was fined £2,500, with £6,864 costs, when work by a contractor resulted in him and others being exposed to asbestos fibres.

Manchester Metropolitan University was fined £5,000 and £2,747 costs when a worker fell through an unmarked fragile roof.

At Manchester University, a telescope technician fell off a ladder while carrying out maintenance work, costing the university more than Pounds 3,000.

Ystrad Mynach College, an adult further education college in Mid Glamorgan, Wales, was fined £15,000 after a student drowned in a flooded river during a field trip. No risk assessment had been carried out and the lecturer involved had not been aware of the health and safety policy of the college.

The University of East Anglia was fined £3,500, with £7,553 costs, after a member of the public drowned in its Sportspark swimming pool in 2002.

As The Times Higher has previously reported, Imperial College London was fined £25,000, with £22,000 costs, after it was discovered that researchers had failed to apply correct safety measures, relating to a research project that involved constructing a "hybrid virus".

At City and Bristol College, a "radioactive source" was reported "lost or stolen".

Veronica King, vice-president for welfare at the National Union of Students, said: "The health and safety of students is a top priority for the NUS, as it should be for all universities and their staff."

Ucea said the higher education sector had such a generally strong record that the HSE had declared the sector to be "mature" - capable of setting its own targets and self-monitoring progress.

phil.baty@thes.co.uk

LEGAL RESPONSIBILITIES

  • The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 imposes a duty on all employers to do as much as possible to ensure the safety of all their employees at work by maintaining safe equipment and machinery, safe systems of work and safe premises. Staff and students must be properly trained and supervised
  • There are separate laws and regulations covering all aspects of the workplace, from slipping and tripping, strains and pains, stress and noise, to the handling of hazardous substances and genetically modified organisms.

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