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August 23, 2006

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Legionnaires’ case concludes

The prosecution of Barrow Borough Council and its design services manager Gillian Beckingham over an outbreak of legionnaires’ disease which killed seven people and infected 180 in 2002 was finally concluded at the end of July.

Ms Beckingham was unanimously acquitted of the manslaughter charges against her but was found guilty by majority verdict of a breach of s7 of the HSWA 1974, for which she was fined £15,000.

Barrow Borough Council, which had had manslaughter charges against it dropped at an earlier trial, was fined £125,000 for breaching s3(1) of the HSWA 1974, to which it had earlier pleaded guilty. It was also ordered to pay prosecution costs of £90,000.

The legionella outbreak at the centre of the case was traced to an air-conditioning unit at the Council-run Forum 28 arts centre in Barrow-in-Furness. Ms Beckingham’s job as head of the design services group mainly concerned the design of local housing projects but this case focused on her responsibilities for the maintenance of the air-conditioning unit.

The prosecution alleged she was instrumental in cancelling the maintenance contract for the unit that ensured the necessary tests for legionella were carried out on it. There was a period when no maintenance contract was in place while another was negotiated. This new contract, which was signed while Ms Beckingham was on holiday, did not provide for any water treatment regime.

In a statement released after the sentence, Ms Beckingham said she was “appalled by this outbreak” and expressed her “sadness and concerns for the families of the deceased and those affected by this tragic incident”. She also underlined that the accepted expert evidence before the court described her as “being placed in an impossible situation by her employer and colleagues” and referred to her actions to rely on a specialist facilities management company as “reasonable and sensible”.

Greg Davies, of HS&E consultancy ems, was one of the experts called as a witness during the trial. Speaking afterwards, he said: “There are lessons to be learnt from this case, which have clear implications not just for middle management but director and board level too. What comes across strongly is the need for top-level commitment for clear and relevant management systems, coupled with effective training.”

The HSE, which was part of the investigation led by Cumbria Police and also involving the Health Protection Agency, said its thoughts were with “all those who are still trying to deal with the consequences of this tragic event”.

It added: “There is a clear lesson for all those who are responsible for installations that carry a risk from legionella. There is no room for assumptions that systems are working as they should, and no room for ignoring personal roles and responsibilities at any level of management.”

Managing director of Workplace Law Group, David Sharp, commented: “The last position any manager wants to find themselves in is to be responsible for health and safety without being competent to do so.” He added that the case underlined the need for corporate manslaughter legislation “with real teeth, which provides a range of alternative penalties”.

In its statement issued after the case, Barrow Borough Council offered its sympathy and sincere apologies to those affected by the outbreak, adding that it accepted the judgement “unreservedly” and will issue a fuller statement in due course after it has considered its implications.

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