NHS trust in court for putting staff at risk

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An NHS trust is to be prosecuted next week for ignoring safety rules and putting patients and staff at risk from injury or contamination.

The Health and Safety Executive, which described the case as unprecedented, said it had uncovered an "amazing" catalogue of breaches of health and safety regulations in a routine inspection of the Swindon and Marlbrough NHS trust last September. The trust runs the 500-bed Princess Margaret hospital in Swindon and three smaller hospitals.

The inspection found that laboratories handling dangerous pathogens such as tuberculosis could not be sealed, clinical waste was not separated from ordinary waste exposing staff to the risk of HIV and hepatitis infection from used needles, electrical equipment was badly maintained and the trust had no policy to prevent violence towards staff.

A spokeswoman for the Health and Safety Executive said the prosecution was the first to be brought against any trust where no accident or injury had yet occurred. There were so many breaches of health and safety regulations that the executive had no option.

"Normally, if there are a couple of things wrong, we would just ask management to put them right. But when you get a whole raft of problems which indicate that management have shown no regard to health and safety you have no option. We cannot have hospitals flaunting the regulations when there are vulnerable, sick and elderly people around."

The case will be heard by Swindon magistrates next Wednesday who have the power to impose a fine up to pounds 5,000. However, if the case is referred to a Crown court the size of the fine is unlimited.

Yesterday, the trust, which has been given the go-ahead to rebuild the Princess Margaret hospital under a pounds 148m private finance scheme, blamed its problems on a pounds 40m maintenance backlog and said it had implemented a 64-point plan to improve safety since last September's inspection.

Frank Dobson warned hospitals yesterday to take a tougher line with patients who threatened or inflicted violence on staff. He told Nursing Standard magazine he was working on stiffer sentences for such offenders. "We will be working, through the police and magistrates courts, to make sure the criminal justice system deals more severely with people who are involved in violence and assault on staff than the generality of assaults. I think people would think that is only right."

A health department spokesman said hospitals were quick to call the police to incidents but slow to prosecute the perpetrators. "It is all about making sure offenders get prosecuted," he said.

Mr Dobson's remarks came as general practitioners reported an increasing risk of violence from patients. A survey in Nottinghamshire disclosed an incident in which female staff were threatened with mutilation by a patient who had been told he could not join the practice list.