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Hard lessons learnt from college Covid tragedy

16 June 2022

WHILE 10 Downing Street suffered the ignominy and political fallout of ‘partygate’, at least no-one died due to Covid controls not being followed. Sadly, the same may not have been true for Burnley College, the first education sector employer to be found to have broken health and safety legislation in relation to Covid failings.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) stopped short of saying that 42-year-old professor Donna Coleman died from Covid after contracting the virus at work. However, it ruled that the college had not been “taking all reasonably practicable steps” to prevent the spread of the virus before Donna sadly died in January 2021 after contracting Covid-19.

Health and safety failings identified by the HSE included:

  • Not meeting social distancing and ventilation requirements within the office that Donna shared with two colleagues, one of whom also tested positive for Covid on 14 December 2020
  • Ignoring social distancing requirements during meetings held within college with external parties
  • Ignoring social distance requirements during social activities held on site by the college. This included a staff Christmas party held on 18 December 2020, despite Lancashire being on a “very high alert” tier at the time and with an increasing number of Covid cases amongst staff
  • Not informing close contacts – either staff or students - of those who tested positive
  • A failure to monitor and enforce the wearing of face coverings by some staff, including some senior managers.

The HSE also found that Donna Coleman had been sharing a “relatively small” office with two other colleagues which, “didn’t allow for social distancing” and that had little ventilation.

Prior to contracting the virus, Donna had expressed worry about health and safety measures at the College.

IOSH head of health and safety, Ruth Wilkinson said, “This case is a reminder of the importance of good health and safety management and practice in the workplace, where the effective prevention and management of risks will protect your workers and your business or organisation. Good health and safety management demands strong, visible and active leadership that ensures worker involvement. We must all play our part in this.”