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September 3, 2008

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NHS Trust failed to identify chemical risk

In a case that emphasises that the adequate protection of those carrying out non-routine work must not be overlooked, a court heard how a part-time hospital worker was repeatedly exposed to a hazardous chemical during cleaning of an X-ray film processor.

The worker at the Pilgrim Hospital in Boston, Lincolnshire, was exposed to gluteraldehyde, a chemical which can cause skin and respiratory problems, over a period of several years, as she had not been provided with proper protection.

Jo Anderson, the HSE inspector who investigated the case in May 2006, and prosecuted in court, told SHP that the woman worked at the hospital in the evenings, developing film and also cleaning the processor, a process that involved opening it up and washing it out. “It was at that point that she was exposed to the developing fluid, which contained gluteraldehyde,” she said.

“No-one in the department or the Trust had picked up on this exposure. They had not even thought about the fact that she could be exposed to the chemical.”

The inspector added that another person had suffered from shortness of breath in the same room. “But despite that, nobody had put two and two together and thought about the work being done on the processor. The Trust had focused on the ventilation aspect of the cleaning, but did not think about the risk from the chemical itself.

The risk was only identified when the HSE visited the hospital and banned the use of the film processor until steps were taken to reduce the risk of exposure.

The Trust said in mitigation that no harm had been proved from the chemical. Although the worker suffered from a rash on her face, it could not be directly proved to have resulted from exposure to gluteraldehyde.

Boston magistrates fined Grantham-based United Lincolnshire Hospitals NHS Trust (ULHT) a total of £18,500 on 18 August and ordered it to pay full costs of £3505 after it pleaded guilty to contravening s2(1) of HSWA 1974 by not ensuring its employees’ safety — fine £15,000, and reg.5(1) of the Management of Health and Safety Regulations 1999 by not making appropriate arrangements for monitoring its preventative and protective measures — fine £3500.

Inspector Anderson said the Trust had jeopardised the health of one its workers by failing to have a system in place to properly identify the risk of exposure to hazardous chemicals and ensure appropriate controls were put in place to protect the health of employees.

She emphasised: “This should include non-routine work, such as cleaning, maintenance and out-of-hours work.”

The inspector urged that employees should always be made fully aware of precautions to prevent this type of exposure, which could have resulted in long-term health problems. “Exposure to even very small amounts of gluteraldehyde can lead to allergic skin reactions, hay fever symptoms and asthma,” she concluded.

ULHT said in a statement that it took the health and safety of all staff very seriously. It said: “We regret the incident that occurred two years ago. Since then, the Trust has undergone many changes, including the introduction of higher-level leadership for health and safety.

“The event does not reflect the standards to which the Trust now operates. Despite the fact that no injuries were caused and that corrective actions had already been implemented, we entered a guilty plea to the charges to avoid any further expense being incurred or matters prolonged still further.”

The Trust also said that gluteraldehyde had been removed from all its premises since April 2007.

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