University safety record panned

October 1, 1999

Environmental watchdogs have criticised universities' "arrogance" about health and safety.

The warning came as Cambridge University pleaded guilty to three criminal charges of losing a package of radioactive material.

Cambridge was given a one-year conditional discharge for three breaches of health and safety law at Chelmsford Crown Court last week. Mr Justice McKinnon, who declared an interest as a Cambridge graduate, did not fine the university but awarded full legal costs of Pounds 22,000 against it.

The Health and Safety Executive and the Environment Agency, which conducted a joint prosecution, said: "Radioactive substances are capable of causing great harm. It is imperative that they are kept safe and secure.

"Cambridge University has been prosecuted in Crown Court today and this must be seen as giving a strong message to all universities and research establishments about the need to have proper systems in place for the management of radioactive substances in order to protect the health and safety of people and the environment."

This week a HSE spokesman said he had encountered many incidents in the past ten years of universities and research institutions displaying "arrogance and complacency" with regard to health and safety. "We have recognised this as a phenomenon in our work. Though we wouldn't say the whole community was like that, it happens," he said.

In Cambridge's prosecution, the court heard that the material, a radioactive phosphorus used in DNA research, was discovered to be missing five days after it was delivered to the department of biochemistry in March 1998. It was never found. Cambridge has now pleaded guilty to five of a total of eight charges brought by the HSE and Environment Agency, including three brought earlier this year in Cambridge Magistrates Court.

Cambridge has repeatedly argued that only a tiny quantity of the material was lost and that it posed an "extremely remote" risk to the public, losing its potency within two weeks. It said that its procedures had already been "vigorously reviewed" to safeguard against a recurrence.

A spokewoman for the Environment Agency this week criticised Cambridge for claiming the lost package was an "isolated incident". "It was not an isolated incident according to our records," she said. The Environment Agency issued an enforcement notice after an unlicenced radioactive substance was discovered in the department of biochemistry in 1997. This was reported by the agency at the time as "the second similar incident" in 12 months.

In 1995, stocks of deadly anthrax bacteria were destroyed after the HSE discovered it was being handled in a substandard laboratory. In 1998, the HSE also expressed concern about "the management of health and safety ... in the university as a whole".

Cambridge registrary Timothy Mead said the university takes health and safety issues "very seriously indeed".

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