Dangerous incidents at UK laboratories, hospitals and Covid testing centers have potentially exposed staff to coronavirus and other dangers during the pandemic, according to official reports obtained by the Guardian.
Many of these involved leaks and spills of virus-laden fluids, but there were also investigations into a flood at an animal facility that kept Covid-infected monkeys, a mix-up that led scientists to mistakenly work on a live virus, and a researcher, bitten by an infected ferret.
The Health and Safety Executive has recorded at least 47 “dangerous events” involving the coronavirus at Lighthouse research centres, hospitals and laboratories in the UK during the pandemic. Reports of 37 cases were handed to the Guardian under the Freedom of Information Act. The rest were detained due to ongoing investigations.
The reports reflect the enormous pressure scientists, health workers and staff at Lighthouse laboratories were under as Covid swept through the UK. Researchers’ hours jumped as they raced to understand the deadly new virus. Meanwhile, NHS staff and specialists quickly deployed to testing centers were pushed to breaking point.
Leaks, spills, and splashes of virus-laden fluids, some from the hands of humans, some from the hands of robots, were common mishaps, necessitating rapid evacuations and cleanup operations by biohazard teams. A recurring problem at Lighthouse labs arose from the swabs in the home test kits not clicking properly, causing people to force them into the sample tubes before screwing on the caps. This created what the HSE called a “spring coil” which turned the swabs into “projectiles” when the vials were opened for testing.
In several cases, scientists worked on live virus without proper safety precautions because they thought the virus was killed, while in other incidents samples that tested positive for Covid were transported without proper precautions. According to HSE reports, two healthcare workers at a Chichester hospital contracted Covid after not wearing PPE, but there is no evidence that laboratory staff caught the virus through work-related errors. In most cases, staff wore appropriate PPE.
The National Institute for Biological Standards and Control, run by the UK medicines regulator, was investigated after flooding at a breeding facility housing Covid-infected marmosets. The same lab was later found to have violated multiple safety rules when researchers noticed water droplets on the lab table and floor after heating the stock of the Covid virus. The risk of exposure is considered to be “extremely low”, but the HSE found that the laboratory failed to plan, control and monitor Covid work, failed to provide sufficient information and training to enable safe handling of the virus, and did not has managed to provide the necessary safety drill.
Public Health England’s Porton Down laboratory, which also carried out crucial work in the Covid pandemic, has been ordered to improve safety after a researcher was bitten by an infected ferret. An investigation into the incident in May 2020 found that the animal had cut the researcher’s protective clothing and drawn blood, prompting managers to send the researcher home to tend to the wound and self-isolate.
The HSE has handed the Wiltshire lab a ‘Corona Improvement Notice’ and asked managers to improve safety at several facilities. But with staff “overstretched” due to “doubled workload”, the case was not closed for a year.
Alan Roberts, deputy director at Porton Down for the UK’s Health Security Agency (formerly Public Health England), said: “We take the safety of our laboratory scientists very seriously. Actions brought to our attention by the HSE have been taken which have helped to further strengthen robust systems and processes to ensure we continue to operate safely and securely.’
A spokesman for the HSE said the “very high level of control” in the sector was reflected in good health and safety. “Incidents of mislabeling or near misses are extremely rare. There are strict incident reporting requirements and we also expect intelligence sharing across the sector,” they said.
Vincent Theobald-Vega, a former HSE inspector and director of consultancy Safety 4 HEd, said biocontainment laboratories, the equipment used in them and the numerous safety protocols are designed to protect against the worst effects of any accidents. But there are still risks for people working in laboratories, especially when working with samples. “Research labs tend to be much more dangerous environments than production labs where simple tests are done in a production line environment,” he said.
“When these controls break down, it’s important that people understand what went wrong so they can change processes and try to prevent the same situation from happening next time. This is the main purpose of the investigation in the health and safety community,” he added. “If organizations didn’t report, we’d all know a lot less about the ways systems fail, and labs would be a lot less safe as a result.”
An MHRA spokesman said staff safety was a top priority and that any delays or accidents were thoroughly investigated through internal incident investigation procedures to find out why they happened.
“Following the two incidents relating to the emergency procedures outlined by the HSE, all emergency scenarios have been reviewed and our training updated so that staff can respond appropriately in emergency situations. These incidents were addressed immediately and did not pose a significant risk of injury to staff,” the spokesperson said. “The regulatory violation has been fully rectified with changes made to the laboratory and operating procedures for its use.”