Investigation ‘inconclusive’ on Covid-related death of lecturer but college did break health and safety laws

No reasonable evidence linking virus exposure within the workplace, Health and Safety Executive concludes

No reasonable evidence linking virus exposure within the workplace, Health and Safety Executive concludes

13 May 2022, 14:00

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An investigation into whether a college lecturer who died of Covid-19 contracted the virus at work has come back inconclusive – but the college has to pay a fee for breaking health and safety laws.

The Health and Safety Executive opened a fatality investigation into Donna Coleman’s death after the University and College Union raised Covid health and safety concerns at Burnley College during the pandemic.

Coleman (pictured) tested positive for coronavirus on December 14 and died on January 6, 2021 aged 42.

The HSE found the college failed to meet social distancing and ventilation requirements, failed to enforce the wearing of face coverings by some staff and senior managers, and that staff were being encouraged not to report close contacts of Covid.

The college also held a Christmas party for staff where social distancing requirements were not met on December 18 – after Coleman contracted the virus.

At the time, the country was in “very high alert” tier 3 restrictions, where outdoor and indoor socialising was banned and hospitality and entertainment venues were closed.

In a letter about the outcome of the investigation Laura Snelgrove, an inspector for the government’s health and safety regulator HSE, said it was “impossible to conclude that from the evidence presented, on the balance of probabilities, that Donna Coleman’s exposure to Covid-19 took place within the workplace”.

Snelgrove added that the evidence does not present a specific, identifiable incident that led to an increased risk of exposure and the information gathered confirms the general levels of Covid-19 infection within the community was “very high” at the time when Coleman tested positive.

However, the HSE did rule that health and safety laws were “broken”, and Burnley College will now have to pay a fee to cover administrative costs due to these “material breaches”.

HSE said it could not share the value of the fee, but told FE Week the agency will meet with the college, Coleman’s family and the UCU next week to discuss the findings.

The UCU said the union, alongside Coleman’s family, is pursuing appealing the HSE’s inconclusive ruling about where Coleman contracted the virus.

Health and safety failings identified by the HSE include a failure to meet social distancing and ventilation requirements within the office that Coleman shared with two colleagues, one of whom also tested positive for Covid on the same day as Coleman.

Vicki Coleman told FE Week she was confused by the HSE decision and felt the inconclusive ruling was contradictory.

She confirmed her family will be appealing and told FE Week they have also reported the case to the police.

Paying tribute to her sister she said: “Donna was really caring just thought of everybody before herself. She was compassionate.

“She probably took on more than she should have done with people’s problems and was always a bit of an agony aunt. But she just always saw the best in people.”

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: “The HSE has found numerous instances where Burnley College failed in its duties to protect the safety of its staff and students during the deadly second wave of Covid. 

“Whilst the HSE was not able to find that Burnley’s failings directly caused Donna’s death, it is clear that the college endangered the lives of staff and students. The college should not need a yearlong investigation to address basic failings like refusing to allow staff to self –isolate when it was a legal requirement or to realise that it is incredibly reckless to push ahead with a Christmas party during a pandemic.”

Grady added: “Many workers have lost their lives to Covid and today our thoughts remain firmly with Donna’s family. We hope that the HSE investigation is a stark reminder to employers that they need to take workplace safety seriously and engage with unions when we raise health and safety concerns. The risk of not doing so is too great.”

Burnley College did not respond to requests for comment.

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