The Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency (AHVLA) has been censured for safety failings over its handling of active bovine TB samples.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) completed a Crown censure procedure against the Weybridge-based organisation following an investigation into the handling of samples containing Mycobacterium bovis (M. bovis) – the causative agent of bovine TB, which in some circumstances can be harmful to humans.

The HSE found that over a period of more than two years, between January 2009 and July 2011, an AHVLA laboratory at Starcross, Exeter, had failed to appropriately inactivate M. bovis in samples that were then sent to their Weybridge laboratory for genetic testing.

Employees at Weybridge, Surrey were put at serious risk because they handled the samples without suitable control measures believing they posed little risk.

Working with M. bovis in a regular laboratory in its live form can cause severe disease and this posed a potentially serious hazard to employees. It therefore requires specific containment measures in order to protect workers.

AHVLA chief executive Chris Hadkiss attended the censure at HSE’s Basingstoke office on Monday (29 April) on behalf of the AHVLA to accept a number of failings linked to the handling and control of samples.

In doing so the agency has formally acknowledged there were health and safety failings. These include:

  • Standard operating procedures were not fit for purpose – they lacked clarity and detail, and did not take proper account of the equipment at Starcross used to inactivate M. bovis, or the experience of personnel at that laboratory
  • The wrong equipment was provided – the equipment provided to the staff at Starcross for the M. bovis inactivation procedure was not the right equipment for the task
  • Training for Starcross technicians was inadequate – personnel undertaking the M. bovis inactivation procedure received no formal training on the process
  • Effectiveness of the inactivation process was not monitored – personnel at Starcross did not routinely check that the inactivation process was working and that the M. bovis samples were safe to handle
  • Managers failed to resolve issues – some operators at Starcross raised concerns about the inactivation process and equipment, but no action was taken

Crown bodies such as AHVLA, an executive agency of DEFRA, must comply with the requirements of the Health and Safety at Work Act. However, they are excluded from the provisions for statutory enforcement, including prosecution and penalties.

A Crown censure is the formal recording of a decision by HSE that, but for the Crown immunity, the evidence of a Crown body’s failure to comply with health and safety law would have been sufficient to provide a realistic prospect of conviction.

HM specialist inspector Keith Stephenson, HSE’s lead investigator in this case, said: “HSE’s investigation at AHVLA, which resulted in the Crown censure, identified several serious failings that led to the potential exposure of a number of AHVLA employees to M. bovis over a period of more than two years. Exposure to M. bovis can be a serious health hazard.

“The evidence brought to light by the HSE investigation would be sufficient to provide a realistic prospect of a court conviction against the agency. This censure is the maximum enforcement action that HSE can take and should serve to illustrate how seriously HSE take the failings that were identified at AHVLA.”

The Crown censure proceedings relate to AHVLA’s discharge of its duties as an employer under Section 2 of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.

An AHVLA spokesman said: “AHVLA accepts that it failed to take all reasonable steps to ensure the health, safety and welfare of its employees by failing to monitor the ongoing effectiveness of the M bovis heat inactivation process. As a result a small number of employees were potentially exposed to M bovis. Potentially affected staff have been health checked and there is no wider impact on public health.

“AHVLA has now undertaken a thorough review of its standard operating procedures, updating them where necessary. Employees have also been retrained in order to ensure that they work fully in accordance with those procedures.”

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