Northumbria University fined after students overdose on caffeine

The importance of ensuring that suitable and sufficient risk assessments are undertaken was highlighted once again in the prosecution brought by the Health & Safety Executive against Northumbria University after two students were administered potentially life threatening levels of caffeine.

The second year sports science study students had been participating in a test intended to measure the effect of caffeine on exercise.

Unfortunately, through lack of appropriate training, instruction and supervision, the technicians involved in administering the test delivered the incorrect dosage.  The amount of caffeine mixed into a solution of water and orange juice was 100 times greater than the recommended dosage.

Both students were hospitalised as a consequence of this error and required emergency treatment for what was a potentially life threatening error.

The Health & Safety Executive issued Improvement Notices immediately after the incident occurred in April 2015.  They considered that there was a breach of the general duty owed by employers to those not in their employment under Section 3 of the Health & Safety at Work Act 1974 as well as a failure to comply with the Management of Health & Safety at Work Regulations 1999.

In the opinion of the Health & Safety Executive there was a failure to ensure that there was a suitable and sufficient risk assessment in place, inadequate supervision and checks and a failure to have regard to what was a clearly foreseeable risk inherent in the caffeine experimentation.

A prosecution ensued and on the 25th January 2017 the Crown Court in Newcastle upon Tyne imposed a financial penalty of £400,000, following sentencing guidelines which came into force in January 2016.  These guidelines require the Court to consider the degree of culpability on the part of the Defendant which gives rise to the breach of Health & Safety Legislation,  the risk of harm which the breach created as well as the financial circumstances of the Defendant.

The guidelines also require the Courts to have due regard to any aggravating and mitigating factors.  No doubt the earlier admission on the part of the University together with genuine regret at the injuries sustained by the students would have counted in their favour when the Court came to determine the appropriate level of the fine.

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