Scarborough Hospital witnessed a disturbing event as three of its dedicated staff members grapple with life-changing medical conditions after being exposed to a toxic chemical during a deep-cleaning operation conducted by Bio Decontamination, a York-based company. The unsettling details emerged at the York Magistrates Court, where Ben Mills, handling the prosecution, outlined the serious repercussions of the incident.
As per Mills, Bio Decontamination released hydrogen peroxide vapor, a potentially lethal chemical that, in extreme cases, can lead to death or blindness. The incident occurred during the decontamination process of Aspen Ward at Scarborough Hospital, where the three affected individuals were actively engaged in deep cleaning. All three victims subsequently had to rush to the accident and emergency department and are now struggling with day-to-day tasks and work-related responsibilities.
Mills underscored that the designated area where the toxic gas was released should have been sealed off and completely void of human presence. However, lapses in safety measures, including porous masking tape around doors, allowed the hazardous vapour to reach the cleaning staff. Compounding the issue, the two Bio Decontamination employees responsible for the operation were reportedly not adequately trained, lacked proper supervision, and used inadequate personal protective equipment (PPE).
The prosecution further highlighted that despite raised concerns from hospital staff, the Bio Decontamination employees persisted with the task. The company, which had only been operational for nine months at the time of the incident, now faces allegations of prioritizing profit over safety.
Representing the Health and Safety Executive, Mills contended, “There is a question whether profit was being put before safety – get the business running – rather than prioritise safety.”
In response, Laura Bayley, representing Bio Decontamination, expressed the company’s “genuine remorse” for the incident. She informed the court that the company took immediate action, suspending all work, launching a comprehensive investigation, and bringing in external experts to assess and advise on its operations.
As a result of the investigation, Bio Decontamination implemented significant improvements in training, risk assessment practices, and overall operations. The company has since earned a safe contractor status under the British Standards Institute accreditation process.
Bayley reported that the company had conducted thousands of jobs without issues after the Scarborough Hospital incident. However, since July 2023, Bio Decontamination had effectively ceased operations and no longer employed staff.
Despite the company’s efforts to rectify its shortcomings, Bio Decontamination pleaded guilty to multiple charges, including failure to ensure the health and safety of non-employees, inadequate protection for its employees, and a lack of a proper risk assessment.
District Judge Adrian Lower reviewed the company’s accounts, revealing a turnover of £85,000 with a gross profit of £79,188 in 2022. For the period from January 1, 2023, to September 30, 2023, the turnover dropped to £41,098, with a gross profit of £20,539.
In his ruling, Judge Lower ordered Bio Decontamination to pay a total of £44,173, comprising a £16,775 fine, £27,228 prosecution costs, and a £170 statutory surcharge. The judge acknowledged the ambiguity surrounding whether profit took precedence over safety and noted that the risk to public health persisted even after the Bio Decontamination employees left the ward.
Judge Lower expressed concern that other hospital staff had been in the affected ward, and the potential harm extended beyond the immediate aftermath of the incident. The judge highlighted that the three hospital staff members affected by the exposure are now pursuing compensation through legal action against the company.
Mills revealed that Bio Decontamination had showcased its services at York Hospital in the summer of 2019, aiming to secure a contract with the York Teaching Hospitals Trust. On September 18, 2019, the company sent its employees to decontaminate Aspen Ward at Scarborough Hospital, initially intended to address a clostridium difficile infection causing diarrhoea.
The court heard conflicting information about whether this was a demonstration or a contracted job, with the deep cleaning commencing before the decontamination process was completed. Bio Decontamination claims it had not received the expected £75,000 payment for the job and decontamination of another ward, leading to the company’s current financial difficulties.
This unfortunate incident serves as a stark reminder of the critical importance of stringent safety measures in industries where hazardous materials are involved. The consequences of lapses in protocol can have severe and lasting impacts on individuals’ lives, as evidenced by the life-changing conditions suffered by the Scarborough Hospital staff.