R “HSE” v University of Northumbria at Newcastle
(Newcastle Crown Court: HHJ Bindloss)
25 January 2017
Peter James, Partner at Plexus Law represented Northumbria University in a Health and Safety prosecution after two students overdosed on caffeine during experiment.
The University was charged with and pleaded guilty to an offence pursuant to Section 3(1) of the 1974 Health and Safety at Work etc. Act.
A practical exercise was being undertaken to assess the effects of caffeine on the body during strenuous exercise. This practical had taken place once a year since 2009 without incident.
Two students volunteered to take the caffeine in a soluble form and undertake the exercise. The students had received a lecture, which identified the risk of caffeine overdose prior to the exercise
When they attended the lab, a laboratory practical guide was provided which identified the amount of caffeine to be ingested should equal 4mg per kilo of body mass. To assist the second year students, 2 technicians attended the practical session, one educated to degree level.
Instead of calculating 4mgs x 76.6 (one of the students weight) giving 306.4mgs (0.306 of a gram), the calculation was undertaken as .4g x 76.6 giving 30.68gs and weighed out on the scales in grams. A similar mathematical error was made in calculating the amount of caffeine to be ingested by the other student. While the risk had been identified and all previous calculations undertaken correctly, the practical guide did not spell out the exact calculation required, the maximum dose or any inbuilt checks. There was therefore a risk of miscalculation.
Counsel for the HSE submitted that a £3.6 million starting point based on the University being a “very large “organisation and with a “high” culpability, “level A” harm and “high” category 1 “likelihood” of harm.
Following submissions from Peter Smith of Deans Court Chambers instructed on behalf of the University, the learned Judge found the University could not be classed as a very large organisation although its income significantly exceeded £50 Million. Further, that although finding “high” culpability and level A harm, accepted that the “likelihood” of the harm occurring was “medium”.
In the result, the learned Judge arrived at a starting point of £900,000 (range £550,000 to 2,900,000) reducing it to £600,000 given the University’s charitable status, public benefit and mitigation. A further reduction was made for a guilty plea and a £400,000 fine was imposed.
The HSE’s own expert Dr Poole no doubt influenced the issue on the “likelihood” of harm expressing part of his opinion thus:
“If the students and supervising technicians have a GCSE qualification in mathematics, they should be able to do this calculation as it required no more than simple multiplication. I am surprised that neither the students nor the technicians could do this calculation without the need for additional training”.
The “likelihood” of harm was argued as low on the University’s behalf.