• Robert Spicer

First Pathogens Prosecution: Pirbright Institute

Health and Safety Executive v Pirbright Institute (2014) City of London magistrates’ court, April 30.

Significant points of the case

  • In November 20912 and January 2013 a ventilation system at the Pirbright Institute in Surrey, designed to create a negative pressure, was operated in a different configuration from normal.

  • Such a facility would normally be maintained at differential negative pressures to ensure that air containing foot and mouth disease virus (FMDV) would be drawn from clean into dirty areas before being filter cleaned.

  • Neither incident resulted in the release of FMDV to the outside environment. The HSE considered that the shortcomings in control, and non-compliance with licence conditions, were serious enough for legal action to be taken.

  • Changes to operating procedures at the Institute must be properly planned, assessed and agreed in advance with the HSE and with DEFRA. This was not done. The Institute is required to maintain high levels of controls because of the highly contagious nature of FMDV if released.

  • There was no effective alarm system to warn workers about the loss of negative air pressure.

The Pirbright Institute was fined £22,350 plus £50,000 costs for eight breaches of the Specified Animals Pathogens Order 2008. This was the first ever prosecution under the Order.

A Principal Specialist Inspector from the HSE’s Biological Agents Unit commented after the case that at facilities where research is undertaken with foot and mouth disease virus, it is imperative that control measures are applied in a rigorous way. In common with other sites which pose major hazards, either to people or to the environment, there must be protection in depth. This involves having a number of protective measures, with each measure providing some degree of assurance in the event of other failures.

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