BiosafetyDozens of safety violations found at U.K. biolabs

Published 20 February 2018

The U.K. Health and Safety Executive (HSE) said that there have been more than 40 incidents at high-security biolabs between June 2015 and July 2017. Mistakes led to staff being infected and falling ill at labs run by hospitals, private companies, and Public Health England.

The U.K. Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found dozens of safety breaches in U.K. biolabs, breaches which caused scientists to be infected and which exposed many others to potentially deadly diseases, it has been reported.

The Guardian reports that the HSE launched investigations into more than forty incidents, which means that during the period under investigation – June 2015 to July 2017 – there was a safety breach every two to three weeks.

The pathogens released as a result of these breaches caused researchers and other staff at labs run by hospitals, private companies, and Public Health England (PHE), to fall ill, some seriously. The Guardian reports that one scientist, working at a PHE lab, contracted the infectious disease Shigella, while another, who was employed by a private company, was hospitalized after falling ill with salmonella poisoning, the paper reported.

Another security mistake saw a live version of the Dengue virus - which kills about 20,000 people around the world each year – sent by regular mail from one lab to another.

Among the security breaches discovered:

— Staff handling potentially lethal bacteria and fungi with inadequate protection

— Students at the University of the West of England unwittingly studied live meningitis-causing germs, which they thought had been killed by heat treatment

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 duty holders 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 U.K. labs from other labs within the U.K. that were unsolicited, mislabeled or unlabeled.

“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.”

In all, eighty-two incidents were reported to the HSE’s microbiology and biotechnology unit over a two-year period, but no investigation was deemed necessary in forty of the cases.

The HSE typically investigates incidents which “resulted or could have resulted in the release or escape of a micro-organism likely to cause severe infection or illness.”

PHE chief executive Duncan Selbie 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 always improving our safety systems.”