University Pleaded Guilty to Criminal Charges of Safety Violation


A radioactive phosphorus used in DNA research, was discovered to be missing five days after it was delivered to the department of biochemistry at Cambridge University in March 1998. It was never found. Cambridge has pleaded guilty to five of a total of eight charges brought by the HSE and Environment Agency, including three brought earlier this year in Cambridge Magistrates Court.

Cambridge was given a one-year conditional discharge for three breaches of health and safety law at Chelmsford Crown Court last week. Mr Justice McKinnon, who declared an interest as a Cambridge graduate, did not fine the university but awarded full legal costs of £22,000 against it.

A HSE spokesman said he had encountered many incidents in the past ten years of universities and research institutions displaying "arrogance and complacency" with regard to health and safety. "We have recognised this as a phenomenon in our work. Though we wouldn't say the whole community was like that, it happens," he said. In 1995, stocks of deadly anthrax bacteria were destroyed after the HSE discovered it was being handled in a substandard laboratory. In 1998, the HSE also expressed concern about "the management of health and safety … in the university as a whole".

Lessons Learned

Many kinds of hazardous substances are used in university academic and research activities. The prosecution of the Cambridge University should be taken as a strong message by the university community to have proper systems in place for the management of radioactive substances and other hazardous materials in order to protect the health and safety of staff, students, community members and the environment.


-- Report extracted from The Times Higher October 1, 1999