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Peter Smith Defends Northumbria University in Health & Safety Case After 2 Students Overdosed on Caffeine During Experiment

R (HSE) v. Northumbria University at Newcastle (2017) Newcastle Crown Court : HHJ Bindloss

The University was charged with and pleaded guilty to an offence pursuant to s. 3(1) of the 1974 HSWA.

A practical exercise was being undertaken to assess the effects of caffeine on the body during strenuous exercise. This practical had taken place once per year since 2009 without incident.

Two students volunteered to take the caffeine in soluble form and undertake the exercise. The students had received a lecture which identified the risk of caffeine overdose in the early morning.

When they attended the lab, a Lab Practical Guide was provided which identified that the amount of caffeine should equal 4mg per kilo of body mass. To assist the 2nd year students were two Technicians, one educated to degree level.

Instead of calculating 4 x 76.6 (one of the students weight) giving 306.4 mg (0.306 of a gram), the calculation was undertaken as 0.4 x 76.6 giving 30.64 and weighed out on the scales in grams.

Whilst the risk had been identified and all previous calculations undertaken correctly, the Lab Practical Guide did not spell out the exact calculation required, maximum dose or inbuilt checks, therefore a risk of miscalculation.

Counsel for the HSE submitted for a £3.6 million starting point based on the University being ‘Very large’ and with ‘High’ culpability, ‘Level A’ harm and ‘High’ category 1‘Likelihood’ of harm.

Following submissions, the learned Judge found that the University could not be classed as ‘Very large’ although its income significantly exceeded £50 million. Further, that although finding ‘High’ Culpability and ‘Level A’ harm, accepted that the ‘Likelihood’ of the harm occurring was ‘Medium’.

In the result, the learned Judge arrived at a starting point of £900,000 (range £550,000 - £2,900,000) reducing it to £600,000 given the University’s charitable status, public benefit and mitigation. A further reduction was made for the guilty plea and a £400,000 fine imposed.

The issue on ‘Likelihood’ of harm was no doubt influenced by the HSE’s own expert Dr Poole expressing part of his opinion thus:-

“If the students and supervising technicians have a GCSE qualification in mathematics they should be able to do this calculation as it requires no more than simple multiplication. I am surprised that neither the students nor the technicians could do this calculation…without the need for additional training.”        ‘Likelihood’ of harm was argued as ‘Low’ on the University’s behalf.

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