Health agency fined £25,000 over E.coli spillage

The Health Protection Agency was fined £25,000 today after up to a billion doses of the deadly bug E.coli were spilt in an accident at its laboratory.

Prosecutors said the incident exposed a "general complacency" about the transfer of infectious waste at the HPA's centre in Colindale, north London.

No-one was infected as a result of the spillage in October 2007 although three employees had been put at risk of contamination, the Old Bailey heard.

The court was told that faulty "bins" used to carry the bug and other infectious waste - including samples of the plague - to be safely disposed of remained in use even though defects had been spotted 17 months earlier.

At the time of the accident, employees taking E.coli to a disposal unit were not wearing protective clothing, said Andrew Marshall, prosecuting.

An initial assessment of the spillage by staff at the centre had shown a "complete lack of understanding of risk", Mr Marshall added.

Judge Martin Stephens said the failings were an "acute embarrassment" for the HPA, an independent body set up by the Government in 2003 to protect the public from threats from infectious diseases and environmental hazards.

In addition to the fine he ordered the agency to pay costs of £20,166.

The court heard that an HPA employee called Neil Perry - who had not been properly trained in the transport of the waste - was handling the bin when one of his hands slipped, it swung down to the floor, and the lid came open.

Glass tubes holding semi-solid samples of the bacteria fell to the ground, with some of the lids breaking and others coming off in the fall, said Mr Marshall.

The spillage of 100-200ml contained approximately 10 billion organisms of the O157 strain E.coli, representing between 100 million and one billion doses of the bug - described in court as a "highly infectious biological agent".

Mr Marshall said there was a "real risk" that "contamination or infection" could have occurred.

He added: "The investigation by the Health and Safety Executive revealed a general complacency around the transfer of infectious waste within the centre.

"There were a number of ongoing failings creating a risk of contamination to employees by infectious biological agents."

The Health Protection Agency pleaded guilty at an earlier hearing to a breach of health and safety legislation.

HSE inspector Jennifer Higham said: "E.coli O157 is a highly infectious and potentially deadly bacterium and there are well established practices for handling this safely.

"But in this case, these practices were not met, exposing several staff and potentially their families to a real risk of infection."

She said the HPA should have developed a "safe system" for dealing with the bug and disposing of it and other such hazardous waste.

"Equipment should have been well maintained and employees should have had appropriate training," she added.

"This was a serious breach of HPA's duty to ensure the health, safety, and welfare at work of all its employees."

A spokesman for the agency said: "The HPA regrets the circumstances that led to today's conviction and accepts the fine imposed by the court.

"We are keen to stress that none of the staff present at the time of this incident suffered any ill health and there was categorically no risk to the public from the spillage.

"Nevertheless we accepted the seriousness of this incident, referred it immediately to the HSE and co-operated fully with their investigation.

"Since the incident, which occurred more than two and a half years ago, the HPA has conducted a thorough review of its health and safety management and has taken the appropriate steps to reduce the likelihood of a similar incident occurring in the future."

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: 3rd Line Virtualisation, Windows & Server Engineer

    £40000 - £47000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A 3rd Line Virtualisation / Sto...

    Recruitment Genius: Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Service Engineer

    £26000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A successful national service f...

    Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive / Sales - OTE £25,000

    £15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Fixed Term Contract

    £17500 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We currently require an experie...

    Day In a Page

    Syria civil war: Meet the military commander who says his soldiers will not rest until every inch of their war torn country is free of Islamist 'terrorists'

    ‘We won’t stop until Syria is back to normal’

    Near the front lines with Islamist-controlled towns where Assad’s troops were besieged just last month, Robert Fisk meets a commander confidently preparing his soldiers for battle
    Fifa corruption: Strip Qatar of the World Cup? Not likely

    Strip Qatar of the World Cup? Not likely

    But if a real smoking gun is found, that might change things, says Tom Peck
    Twenty two years later Jurassic Park series faces questions over accuracy of the fictional dinosaurs in it

    Tyrannosaurus wrecked?

    Twenty two years on, Jurassic Park faces questions over accuracy
    The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation may undermine Hillary's chances

    The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation...

    ... and how it may undermine Hillary's chances in 2016
    Genes greatly influence when and how many babies a woman will have, study finds

    Mother’s genes play key role in decision to start a family

    Study's findings suggest that human fertility is still evolving
    12 best olive oils

    Extra-virgin, cold-press, early-harvest, ultra-premium: 12 best olive oils

    Choosing an olive oil is a surprising minefield. Save yourself the hassle with our handy guide
    Rafa Benitez Real Madrid unveiling: New manager full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

    Benitez full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

    There were tears in the former Liverpool manager’s eyes as he was unveiled as Real Madrid coach. But the Spaniard knows he must make tough decisions if he is to succeed
    England can win the Ashes – and Elvis Presley will present the urn

    England can win the Ashes – and Elvis will present the urn

    In their last five Test, they have lost two and drawn two and defeated an India side last summer who thought that turning up was competing, says Stephen Brenkley
    Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

    Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

    Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
    Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
    Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

    The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

    Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
    The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

    The future of songwriting

    How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
    William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

    Recognition at long last

    Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
    Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

    Beating obesity

    The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
    9 best women's festival waterproofs

    Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

    These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)