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Scientist’s lab death was ‘avoidable’

NHS trust and college fined for breaches of health and safety following death of Damian Bowen

22 December, 2017 — By Tom Foot

AN NHS trust and leading college have been fined tens of thousands of pounds after a research scientist died while working with liquid nitrogen.

The Chelsea & Westminster Hospital NHS Foundation Trust and Imperial College pleaded guilty this week at Southwark Crown Court to breaching the Health and Safety Act following the death of Damian Bowen in 2011.

The 32-year-old was freezing blood samples in a small room in St Stephen’s Centre Laboratory, part of the NHS trust.

In a long-running case, it has been revealed that the ventilation system in the room was switched off. The Health and Safety Executive says the death “could have been prevented”.

After the hearing, HSE inspector Anne Gloor said: “Liquid nitrogen rapidly expands as a gas, replacing the oxygen in a room and creating a situation where life cannot be sustained. Mr Bowen was working alone with liquid nitrogen in a small room without any extraction. If the extraction system had been switched on Mr Bowen would not have died.

“There should have been a system in place to prevent the extraction being switched off, a proper system of maintaining the equipment and clear arrangements for preventing lone working with liquid nitrogen”.

Mr Bowen, from Hackney, was freezing blood samples as part of research for the International Aids Vaccine Institute. The room was rented by Imperial which also owned the vat of liquid nitrogen.

At his inquest, in 2016, the coroner said Mr Bowen was found in the morning by a colleague. He had been staying later to work on the samples but was found wearing his lab coat and protective visor in a small room that contained the liquid nitrogen freezer.

Reports at the inquest said loud alarms and flashing lights should have gone off when the room was filled with cold nitrogen, which sucks of the oxygen out of the air, but these did not go off.

The NHS trust was fined £80,000 and Imperial College London was fined £70,000.

Both the NHS trust and the college were ordered to pay costs.

A spokesperson for Imperial College said: “We would like to offer our sincere condolences to Mr Bowen’s family and friends… Imperial takes the safety of its community and those who work closely with it extremely seriously.

“Although the court did not suggest that the college had caused Mr Bowen’s death, the college has taken a number of actions following October 2011. In particular we have updated and revised related policies and procedures and developed strengthened management arrangements for buildings shared with the trust.”


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