• Robert Spicer

Health and Safety: Extreme Example

Health and safety law is the Cinderella of the English legal system. It rarely features in law school syllabuses, iunder constant attack for populist journalists and is subejcted to government cuts. In reality, it is one of the few elements of English law which operates in favour of workers in relation to employers.

Recently, for example, in May 2011 East Sussex County Council was fined following an incident in which a man died and five others were seriously injured when they drank dishwasher fluid.

A group of persons from the St Nicholas Centre in Lewes, a day care facility for adults with learning difficulties run by the council, were taken to Plumpton Agricultural College to use the sports facilities.

They were given a drink which had been prepared at the day centre and brought to the sports hall. This should have been orange squash but actually contained sodium hydroxide, a cleaning chemical.

The six who drank the fluid started vomiting blood and fitting. Colin Woods, who had Down’s Syndrome, died 17 months after drinking the chemical. Five others suffered burns to their mouths, throats and stomachs. Most had to undergo repeated surgery.

Three will never be able to swallow normally again.

East Sussex County Council had failed to ensure that the fluid was safely stored away. It was left on the side in an unlocked kitchen. The chemical was marked as corrosive but it was similar in appearance to that of orange squash.

Surviving service users at the day centre were too traumatised by the incident to be interviewed about who had mixed the drink.

East Sussex County Council was fined £50,000, plus £27,000 costs, for a breach of section 3 of the Health and Safety at Work,etc., Act 1974, for failing to ensure the health and safety of non-employees.

A spokesperson for the HSE is reported to have made the following comments:

• This was one of the worst incidents which he had investigated in all his time as a health and safety inspector.

• It was impossible to adequately imagine the suffering and terror that the victims must have felt as the tragedy unfolded.

• The terrible thing was that the incident and its horrific consequences could so easily have been prevented by simply locking away the container of sodium hydroxide.

• Mr Woods had died a slow, painful and unnecessay death and others had suffered terrible and preventable injuries, some painful and permanent, because the council had failed in its responsibility to take proper care of them. It was imperative that authorities properly protected vulnerable people in their care.

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