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Healthcare legal update: Recent HSE involvement in care homes

    • Health and safety
    • Health and life sciences - Healthcare e-briefings

    09-12-2013

    In recent times, the Care Quality Commission (CQC) has been faced with criticism for its failure to take action in response to health and social care incidents. In particular, the CQC has been described as an organisation without the ‘teeth’ to actually effectively enforce the standards by which it inspects and monitors health and social care organisations. Furthermore, the CQC has also been plagued with scandal regarding alleged cover-ups which have implicated CQC officials at all levels of this organisation.

    Set against this background, the Health and Safety Executive’s involvement in care homes (often working alongside local authority safeguarding vulnerable adults groups) is also worth scrutinising. The HSE has the power to investigate and prosecute organisations but in the past its focus in the healthcare sector has been on the safety of staff working within this sector, rather than patient and service user safety.

    Last month a national care home operator was fined a total of £30,000 after an investigation and prosecution by the HSE. In this case the HSE used both their wide powers under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 regarding the safety of those affected by an organisations’ undertaking (work), and the specific provisions of the Lifting Operation and Lifting Equipment Regulations 1998 to hold the care home operator accountable for failing to prevent risks to the safety of residents at the home.

    MNS Care PLC pleaded guilty to charges relating to exposing residents to a risk of being scalded due to a lack of thermostatic mixing valves to limit shower and bath water temperatures to the legal limit, and for using potentially unsafe lifting equipment at their Hanbury Court Care Home in Dagenham. The HSE found similar failings at another of the company’s homes elsewhere in the country.

    The prosecution followed an inspection on 14 March this year to check standards after similar failings were identified at another of the company’s homes in Suffolk. The HSE also served a prohibition notice on the home which prevented dangerous equipment being used until the HSE was satisfied it was safe to use.

    The HSE found that the lifting slings at the home had not been inspected as the often as the law requires, and that a previous inspection had failed to remove one of the slings from use, even though it had been inspected and condemned as unsafe to use. The HSE also found that staff at the home had not been trained to carry out routine pre-use checks on the slings to identify potential faults and damage.

    This case illustrates that the HSE is now prepared to go into the healthcare sector, and take action where they consider patient or service user safety is being put at risk. In the above case, no-one was actually harmed as a result of the care home’s deficiencies but the risks to safety were enough for the HSE to obtain a successful conviction. Care home operators, and all those working within the healthcare sector should be mindful of an increased enforcement role for the HSE within this sector. In the future other regulators (such as a reformed CQC) may be given more enforcement powers, but for now the HSE seem to be trying to fill the enforcement void. Healthcare organisations need to be aware of their responsibilities under health and safety law, how they relate to patient safety, and take legal advice if necessary.

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