Imperial College London fined £70,000 after scientist suffocated in lab

One of London’s top universities has been fined £70,000 after a scientist suffocated while he was working in a hospital laboratory that filled with nitrogen.

Damian Bowen, 32, was using liquid nitrogen as he carried out HIV blood sample experiments, unaware that the ventilation system to his lab, at Imperial College London, had been switched off.

He was wearing a visor, cryogenic gloves and protective gloves, but nitrogen escaped into the air and quickly displaced the oxygen in the room.

Mr Bowen, from Hackney, suffocated in the nitrogen-rich atmosphere on October 26, 2011, and his lifeless body was discovered in the lab the following day.

At an inquest last year, a jury criticised “lax enforcement of standard operating procedures” at the hospital, as well as “insufficient control, unclear responsibility” which led to Mr Bowen’s death.

Today at Southwark crown court, Imperial College was fined £70,000 and Chelsea and Westminster NHS Trust was fined £80,000 after admitting health and safety breaches.

“Imperial College accepted that the risk assessment was insufficient and not suitable to ensure ventilation was on,” said Judge Michael Grieve QC.

“If the ventilation had been switched on Damian Brown would not have died.

“The failure to switch the ventilation system back on and the means by which it is signalled is the heart of the matter.”

He said the fines were lower than the sentencing guidelines as both public institutions are not profit-making.

Mr Bowen’s father, Glenn Bowen, told the court he broke down in tears when he discovered his son had direct debits to charities despite being on a relatively low wage.

“I know the value he placed on saving lives are the same values shared by these institutions,” he said.

“I believe they are truly sorry for the death of my son.

“Damian made just enough money to survive in London. In terminating his bank account I found he made a small number of direct debits to charities.”

The two organisations pleaded guilty to two charges of breaching a general duty to an employee. They were both ordered to pay £23,000 in costs.


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