University fined £400k after caffeine overdose

The importance of risk assessments and training has again been shown following a university’s prosecution after students were given killer caffeine levels.

Two sports science students had been taking part in tests measuring the effect of caffeine on exercise.

Unfortunately, poor training, instruction and supervision meant the boffins administering the test gave the wrong caffeine dose.

The caffeine the technicians mixed into drinks was 100 times greater than the recommended level.

The students should have been given 0.3g of caffeine but were given 30g. There’s 0.1g in the average cup of coffee meaning each student was given enough for 300 coffees!

Both required emergency hospital treatment in the life-threatening botch. Death has been reported after consuming just 18g. The pair probably only survived because they were fit and active youngsters.

Duty of care

The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) immediately issued improvement notices as Northumbria University had broken the general duty of care employers owe to people not in their employment under the Health & Safety at Work etc. Act 1974.

The university also failed to comply with the Management of Health & Safety at Work Regulations 1999.

An investigation by the HSE found Northumbria had failed to:

  • put in place a suitable and sufficient risk assessment
  • adequately supervise and check matters
  • see the caffeine experiment’s clearly foreseeable risk.

The university had switched from using caffeine tablets to powder.

Supervision was all the more vital as staff weren’t experienced or competent enough and had never experimented on their own before. The university took no steps to make sure staff knew how to do things.

A catalogue of errors included the calculation being done on a mobile, the decimal point being put in the wrong place and having no risk assessment for the test.

The prosecution said “The failures to follow basic Health & Safety requirements were cumulative, persistent, long-standing and systemic”.

Sentence

At court, Northumbria University was fined £400,000 with £26,460 in costs after admitting breaking Health & Safety law.

In giving sentence the judge said “The risk here was death. It should have been a high priority, a risk assessment should have been carried out and appropriately put into place with appropriate training to reduce the foreseeable risk.”

He added “The test was perfectly proper, the error was in the calculation of the amount of caffeine.”

Under tougher sentencing guidelines courts consider the:

  • defendant’s “degree of culpability” in breaking Health & Safety law
  • risk of harm the law break created
  • defendant’s financial circumstances
  • aggravating or mitigating factors.

Northumbria has more than 30,000 students and a budget of almost £250 million. An early admission and regret at the students’ injuries may have counted in its favour when the judge decided the appropriate fine as it could easily have been much higher.

The HSE though said it was happy with the fine and hoped it “sent a message” to organisations doing similar experiments.

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