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Damning investigation into Covid death finds Burnley College broke 'health and safety laws'

20 May 2022

A damning investigation into Covid-19 safety at Burnley College after the tragic death of teacher Donna Coleman found that 'health and safety laws...were broken' by the college.

This is the first time the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has found an education sector employer to have broken health and safety legislation in relation to Covid failings

The HSE is the government body that is responsible for the regulation and enforcement of workplace safety. It opened a fatality investigation into Donna Coleman's death after UCU raised Covid-19 health and safety concerns with both the college and the HSE.

Donna, a longstanding UCU member, who worked with vulnerable students at Burnley College sadly died in January 2021 after contracting Covid-19. Donna was just 42 years old and leaves behind family and friends. Donna had been working on site at the college and prior to her death UCU had rejected the college's risk assessments in her working area because of inadequate Covid controls.

The HSE found the college was not taking all reasonably practicable measures to control Covid-19 at the time surrounding Donna's death.

Health and safety failings identified by the HSE include:

  • a failure to meet social distancing and ventilation requirements within the office that Donna shared with two colleagues, one of whom also tested positive for Covid on 14 December 2020
  • a failure to meet social distancing requirements during meetings held within college with external parties
  • a failure to meet social distancing requirements during social activities held by the college on site. On 18 December 2020, Burnley College held a Christmas party for all staff members, despite the increasing number of Covid cases amongst staff
  • a failure to inform close contacts of those who tested positive. Staff were being encouraged not to report close contacts and staff and students were not notified if they were defined as a 'contact'.  In addition, people representing the Senator Group who visited Burnley College on 10 December 2020 were not notified by Burnley College that they were close contacts to Donna Coleman, who was confirmed positive on the 14 December 2020
  • a failure to monitor and enforce wearing of face coverings by some staff members and some senior managers.   

UCU, alongside Donna's family, is pursuing the HSE's appeal mechanism after the health and safety body concluded that irrelevant of the significant safety failings the evidence was inconclusive as to whether Donna contracted the virus at work or as a result of a work activity.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: 'The Health and Safety Executive has found numerous instances where Burnley College failed in its duties to protect the safety of its staff and students during the deadly second wave of Covid.

'Whilst the HSE was not able to find that Burnley's failings directly caused Donna's death, it is clear that the college endangered the lives of staff and students. 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.

'Many workers have lost their lives to Covid and today our thoughts remain firmly with Donna's family. We hope that the HSE investigation is 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 risk of not doing so is too great.'

Last updated: 20 May 2022