College regret over tutor scarred by acid

11th April 2008 at 01:00

Swift admission of guilt keeps fine at pound;14,000 for lax procedures that led to explosion in motor technology centre

A college was criticised for a "very serious breach of health and safety duties" after a lecturer was scarred by concentrated nitric acid which exploded over his face and body.

City of Bristol College was fined pound;14,000, with pound;18,000 costs, after pleading guilty to failing to protect staff in a hazardous environment.

Gary Baird, 45, wept in Bristol Magistrates' Court as he listened to how a litre of acid exploded over him, along with shards of glass. He needed two skin grafts and an operation to repair tendons on his right hand.

The accident happened two years ago. Mr Baird has been left permanently scarred and unable to return to full-time work. He suffers from nightmares and traumatic flashbacks.

Neville Gibson, the chairman of the court, criticised the "lack of line management" leading to the incident and the "lack of control over the purchase, storage and use of dangerous chemicals".

He said the fine would have been greater had the college not been so quick to admit responsibility and enter a plea of guilty. The prosecution was brought by the Health and Safety Executive under safety at work laws.

Mr Baird, a welding lecturer from Stoke Gifford, Bristol, had been working at the college's motor technology centre preparing materials to test the strength of welds.

He had attempted to buy the acid ready mixed with ethanol in 2003, but the supplier would only provide them separately.

Before the accident he had completed the mixing process several times without incident - but routine turned to disaster when the nitric acid exploded.

Richard Bretton, representing the college, said: "We welcome this opportunity to publicly apologise to Gary Baird. The college and all its senior managers deeply regret this accident and the effect on his health, his career and his family.

"Since the accident, the college has taken health and safety even more seriously and has five health and safety practitioners."

After the hearing, Susan Chivers, the investigating inspector for the Health and Safety Executive, said: "Colleges have a responsibility towards their staff as well as their students, and they need to make sure when chemicals are purchased that they know what they are and what they are going to be used for.

"In this case, the City of Bristol College did not ensure that one of its tutors was adequately trained and supervised so that he could carry out his work safely.

"Without such safety systems, it is often just a matter of time before something goes wrong - sometimes with devastating consequences."

Richard Thorold, estates and resources director at City of Bristol, said: "In light of the incident, the college has significantly increased the resources available.

"This includes establishing a team of dedicated health and safety practitioners, a staff training programme at all levels across the college, and we now have a very robust set of procedures to ensure an accident like this is not repeated."

Mr Baird is making a civil claim for compensation, supported by the University and College Union. Roger Kline, head of employment rights at the union, said: "If this can happen in one college it may happen in others, putting staff and students at risk. As teaching professionals, we regret that a college has had to face a criminal prosecution, but we hope this will encourage all employers to positively address health and safety issues within the workplace."

In 2002, City of Bristol College was fined pound;3,000 for losing a low-level radioactive device used to control static electricity.

WE CAN HELP YOU WITH ADVICE TO AVOID ACCIDENTS AT WORK

FE Focus and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) have joined forces to reassure college managers and staff who might be concerned about their own workplace in the light of this case. If you have questions about your managers' health and safety duties, or you are a manager and feel concerned about your own responsibilities towards your staff, we will pass your questions to the HSE anonymously and publish their experts' answers.

We will not reveal your identity - either in print or to the HSE - just your questions. Nor will we identify any employer or organisation. And your questions will be edited accordingly. Questions and answers will be published on Friday April 25.

Contact steve.hook@tes.co.uk.

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