Watchdog on safety keeps bite

June 30, 1995

The Health and Safety Executive will continue to prosecute individual staff for safety transgressions despite its failure to win a court case against a chemistry lecturer last week.

Clive Bird's case ended abruptly when the judge ordered the jury to find him not guilty before his defence had been heard. The judge, unusually, awarded all costs against the HSE.

A student of Dr Bird, 64, of King's College London, had lost part of his thumb and forefinger after an explosion in a laboratory in February 1994.

The HSE charged Dr Bird with a breach of section seven of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, saying he had failed to make a suitable risk assessment.

But Christopher Hordern, QC, Knightsbridge Crown Court judge, said: "(The prosecutor) concedes the evidence shows Dr Bird made a risk assessment and he concedes a risk assessment is separate from the form which records it."

Crucially, the student, Lakhbir Pooni, who had claimed that Dr Bird did not warn him that the chemicals he was working with were hazardous, admitted in the witness box that Dr Bird had warned him.

David Morris, chairman of the Health and Safety Commission's education service advisory committee said: "The case was lost because the evidence did not come up to proof." This can happen if "witnesses don't say in the witness box what they say during investigations," he added.

"In general, if there is a significant risk of any kind then the nature of that risk needs to be explained to people. We can see little other mechanism than to write it down."

Mr Morris said that the HSE would continue with its policy. "It's only when an institution has a reasonable health and safety management system in place that we would then start looking at the responsibilities of individual employees," he said.

"Some people have the view that the only people who have responsibility are the employers but that has never been the case."

But David Triesman, general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, said that the case had been a "scandalous attack. The HSE appears to have substituted vindictive action against an individual for a proper obligation to improve health and safety".

He said that lecturers are increasingly unable to monitor safety because student numbers have increased. The AUT will press the HSE and the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals to stipulate a minimum staff/student ratio necessary for safety.

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