College broke Covid health and safety rules, watchdog’s investigation into employee death finds

HSE report was ‘inconclusive’ over whether professor caught the virus at work, but experts say the case is still a ‘stark reminder’ of the importance of workplace safety

Michele Ursi/iStockphoto/Getty Images

An education provider has been found to have broken several health and safety laws relating to Covid-19, the UK’s health and safety watchdog has said, after it was investigated following the death of an employee.

Donna Coleman, who worked at the Burnley College as a professor, died in January 2021, aged just 42, after she contracted Covid-19.

The subsequent investigation by the Health and Safety executive (HSE) said it was “inconclusive” as to whether Coleman had contracted the virus at work.

One in five businesses plan to introduce ‘no jab, no job’ policies in the next year, poll finds

Employee was fairly dismissed after refusing to attend work because of coronavirus concerns, EAT rules

New SSP rules: how should HR respond?

However in a letter to the Burnley College – published by the University and College Union (UCU) – the HSE said the college had not been “taking all reasonably practicable steps” to prevent the spread of the virus at the time, and that it had failed to enforce social distancing requirements during in-person meetings with external parties.

The letter said there was video evidence showing staff, including Coleman, standing “side by side” and without face coverings during the meetings.

It also found that Coleman had been sharing a “relatively small” office with two other colleagues, which “didn’t allow for social distancing” and that had no ventilation apart from a window, “which relied on the confidence of employees to open the window during the winter months”.

Get more HR and employment law news like this delivered straight to your inbox every day – sign up to People Management’s PM Daily newsletter

After Coleman contracted Covid-19, the HSE said, the college failed to inform those who had been in close contact with her, including attendees of a meeting with the college’s senator group on 10 December 2020.

This may have been “common practice” and that staff were “being encouraged not to report close contacts”, the watchdog said, adding that the college also failed to notify students if they had been in contact with a positive case.

Additionally, the college held its staff Christmas party on 18 December, when Lancashire was on a ‘very high alert’ tier. At this point, Covid infections had been rising among staff. The HSE was told by an anonymous source that there was no social distancing at this event, and an accompanying video clip showed this to be the case.

Prior to contracting the virus, Coleman had expressed worry about the health and safety measures at the college, telling her sister that she was “scared” to go into work. However, she did not raise her concern with the college because she had been afraid to lose her job.

The HSE said there was “no evidence to indicate that Donna Coleman did not take suitable precautions to protect herself”.

Ruth Wilkinson, head of health and safety at the Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), said that the case demonstrates the importance of health and safety management. “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”, she said.

Martin Williams, head of employment and partner at Mayo Wynne Baxter, added that although some Covid rules may have been seen as “overbearing and draconian” at the time, this did not give employers the right to ignore them. “Employers do not have an option to comply with matters of health and safety”, he said.

“Employees should not be put in a position of danger and should not have to worry about being uncooperative when trying to resist instructions to ignore law-breaking, especially where there is a potential threat to life,” Williams said.

The HSE told the college it would be required to pay a fee as a consequence of its failure to enforce health and safety measures during the pandemic.

It also found the college had improved its Covid health and safety measures in early 2021, and said no further action was necessary as there was no longer a requirement for employers to “explicitly consider Covid in their health and safety policies”.

Enrique Garcia, head of employment law at Wilford Smith, said that while rules have been continually changing over the past two years, management should always “enforce the rules that are in place from time-to-time”.

He added that HR is well placed to ensure the correct implementation, training, and compliance with the rules, and to make sure anyone who breaches them faces “appropriate remedial action… in accordance with the Company’s disciplinary policy and procedure”.

Jo Grady, general secretary of the UCU, said that the investigation should be 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 college should not need a year-long 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,” she added.

UCU and Coleman’s family are appealing the HSE’s ‘inconclusive’ finding on whether the professor had contracted Covid at work.

Burnley College has been contacted for comment.