Sometimes Imperial College is uncharacteristically shy about attracting publicity for its world class activities.
Five years ago it had to pay nearly £50,000 in fines and legal fees after potentially releasing a deadly virus, for which there is no known cure. In addition to the failure to take basic safety precautions when working with a hybrid form of the Hepatitis C virus (developed by the university), it took a brave lab rat whistleblower to report that the cabinets in which it was kept were not properly used, or ventilated and no safety equipment was available.
As a consequence of the ‘disregard shown for basic measures to ensure and monitor safety’, Imperial’s employees had been exposed to a very real risk of a fatal infection.
The Hepatitis C case was not the first time that Imperial had been in court over safety breaches. Just over a year earlier, it had been fined £20,000 for a safety breach involving HIV virus research and had also been ordered to pay costs of over £11,000. Universal Safety Consultants, a wholly owned subsidiary of the College, had also been fined £20,000 and ordered to pay costs of £12,000.
However, the real cost to the College was significantly greater than this. On top of the fines and the costs of the prosecution, Imperial also had to refurbish the laboratory and expend a considerable amount of staff time in investigating the incident and subsequently preparing for the prosecution.
Afterwards it estimated that the total cost was nearer to £300,000. If the College’s procedures had been unimpeachable, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) would have had little option but to have pursued the individuals rather than the College.
So what do these examples of successful HSE prosecutions tell us? And how many other incidents go unreported, because of employees’ entirely understandable fears of becoming unemployable specialists whose experiments were shut down and research grants wasted? Unfortunately adverse publicity is something you can’t always avoid. Each time the system fails, as clearly it does, we the public have to rely on a brave lab rat whistleblower to risk his, or her job for the greater good. We owe them our thanks, but the fate of these heroes is unknown. Is there anyone left at Imperial who can tell us (in confidence) what happened to them?
A final thought for people living well outside the Imperial impact crater that Wye could become. Once unleashed, untreatable viruses do not have to keep within the confines of Wye’s parish boundary. With 5,000 people projected to commute to Wye every day, some of these are bound to end up living in your street, standing behind you in a bus queue, or waiting outside your children’s primary school. Perhaps one day someone in their lab will be careless with a lethal strain of Hepatitis C.
And a message to those who rubbish concerns about the storage of huge quantities of volatile chemicals at the proposed Wye Park research institute: please reassure us all about Imperial’s safety record and then criticise the HSE for scaremongering.