Damning investigation into Donna Coleman Covid death finds Burnley College broke ‘health and safety laws’

A damning investigation into Covid safety at Burnley College after the tragic death of teacher Donna Coleman found that ‘health and safety laws were broken’ by the college, the University and College Union (UCU) has confirmed.

This is the first time an education sector employer has been issued with a formal notice in relation to Covid failings by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

The HSE opened a fatality investigation into Donna Coleman’s death after UCU raised Covid health and safety concerns with the college and HSE.

Donna (42), a longstanding UCU member, who worked with vulnerable students at Burnley College sadly died in January 2021 after contracting Covid.

Donna, a longstanding UCU member, who worked with vulnerable students at Burnley College sadly died in January 2021 after contracting Covid.

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 at the time surrounding Donna’s death.

Health and safety failings identified 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 December 14th 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 December 18th 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’.

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In addition, people representing the Senator Group who visited Burnley College on December 10th 2020 were not notified by Burnley College that they were close contacts to Donna Coleman, who was confirmed positive on December 14th 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 Donna was more likely to have contracted Covid through community transmission rather than her work at Burnley College.

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 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.”