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Failings at UK labs exposed scientists to potentially lethal diseases

Safety and health breaches at laboratories throughout the UK have spread infections to scientists and exposed others to potentially fatal diseases, it has been reported.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigated more than 40 failings at specialist labs operated by hospitals, private companies and Public Health England (PHE) over the past two years, according to The Guardian

In one instance, the HSE served an improvement notice on PHE after one of its scientists fell ill with shigella, a bacterial disease that is closely related to E. coli.   

Other failings investigated by the HSE between June 2015 and July 2017 were of dengue virus being accidentally sent through the post and staff handling potentially lethal bacteria and fungi while not wearing adequate personal protective equipment. 

On another occasion, students at the University of the West of England examined live meningitis-causing agents which they believed had been neutralised, the newspaper found.

It said one scientist was kept in hospital with salmonella poisoning contracted at private medical firm Pall Life Sciences, while another from Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust was infected with paratyphoid fever.

Four workers at Brighton and Sussex University Hospitals NHS Trust contracted shigella, and a biomedical scientist became sick with two strains of a gastrointestinal bug at London’s Royal Free Hospital.

The HSE said in a statement: “The sector has a good health and safety record, with a high level of control of the most hazardous organisms. The role of maintaining this record is down to the diligence of the dutyholders themselves as well as our role as the regulator.

“There have been a limited number of instances over the past two years where biological agents have been received by UK labs from other labs within the UK that were unsolicited, mislabelled or unlabelled. However, these cases are in the minority and there was no significant threat to public health.

“We are satisfied that the action we took in each case was proportionate.”

According to The Guardian, scientists at Bristol University unknowingly posted live dengue virus to Glasgow University’s Centre for Virus Research in a package that did not meet safety standards for dangerous agents. The parcel did not leak and was destroyed by staff in Glasgow when it arrived. 

One lab run by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency had to be evacuated after an egg containing the flu virus fell off a tray and smashed.

And at a laboratory owned by scientific organisation Viapath, staff posted hazardous bacteria that can cause pneumonia to PHE’s infectious diseases unit in London. The package had not been labelled correctly and on arrival was wrongly handled by the PHE worker. 

Duncan Selbie, chief executive of PHE, said: “Nothing is more important than the health and safety of the public and our staff. 

“We are open and transparent when rare mistakes happen and are always improving our safety systems.” 



Keeley Downey was the former assistant editor of IOSH Magazine. Previously she was editor of Biofuels International, Bioenergy Insight and Tank Cleaning Magazine

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