A COMPANY that runs a private hospital in Basingstoke has been fined £160,000 for breaching health and safety regulations after three people were injured during a chlorine leak, which could have been fatal.

Circle Health Group, which runs the Hampshire Clinic in Old Basing, pleaded guilty to two charges of failing to discharge general health, safety and welfare duty in relation to an incident on March 11, 2021, when a chemical reaction caused the toxic gas to be produced at the hospital’s hydrotherapy pool.

Three people were injured during the incident, resulting in one, Anthony Coombs - who was working as a contractor – being admitted to hospital for his symptoms.

READ MORE: Three people injured during chemical leak at private hospital as fire service called to assist

Circle Health Group, which has a turnover of £950m and runs more than 50 hospitals across the UK, was asked to pay a total of £172,710.03 including costs by Basingstoke Magistrates’ Court, after being prosecuted by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

The court heard that on March 11, 2021, two employees who had relevant experience to balance the chemicals in the hydrotherapy pool were not in.

Mr Coombs, a contracted engineer, was called to the pool and he rang one of the experienced members of staff who attempted to talk him through the procedure over the phone.Hampshire Chronicle: The plant room at The Hampshire Clinic where the chemical leak happenedThe plant room at The Hampshire Clinic where the chemical leak happened (Image: HSE)

District Judge Tim Pattinson said: “Mr Coombs was inexperienced and untrained at carrying out this procedure. This was the problem. What should have happened, with hindsight, is very easy to see. The pool should have been closed until an appropriate, qualified engineer was available.”

The court heard that the two tanks in the plant room of the pool were not labelled, resulting in Mr Coombs adding chemicals to the wrong one, causing a chemical reaction that produced the toxic gas chlorine.

Mark Davies, representing HSE, argued that the risk should be classed as the most severe level, because exposure to high levels of chlorine could result in death.

SEE ALSO: The Hampshire Clinic under investigation by HSE for chemical leak

However, Dominic Kay, representing Circle Health Group, refuted this and said the risk was lower, because chlorine gives off a strong smell alerting someone to its presence; it hangs low to the ground; and because the atmosphere becomes “increasingly unpleasant”.

The court heard that Mr Coombs immediately began coughing, put the lid back on the tank and left the room.

Claire Crockwell, who was an employee at the Hampshire Clinic, along with another employee who was not named, also breathed in the chlorine gas.

In a victim impact statement provided to the court, Mr Coombs said he spent a week in bed following the incident.

Mr Davies said there is “readily available, easily accessible guidance” for hydrotherapy pools, adding: “They could have taken note of the guidance but failed to do so in this matter… These are quite basic failings in context of a large and well-resourced company.”

Hampshire Chronicle: The hydrotherapy pool at The Hampshire ClinicThe hydrotherapy pool at The Hampshire Clinic (Image: HSE)

He told the court the health and safety breach was “serious and systemic”, putting 11 members of staff working in the physiotherapy department “at risk” when regular checks were carried out at the pool.

He added: “The company fell far short of the standard in failing to put in place measures that are recognised standards in the industry and for allowing these to exist for a long period of time.”

READ ALSO: The Hampshire Clinic to be prosecuted for chemical leak in 2021

The HSE said the volume of gas produced was nearly 8,000 times over the workplace exposure limit and nearly 400 times over the Immediately Dangerous to Life or Health Limit (IDHL).

It said that exposure to chlorine can be fatal “in minutes”.

Mr Kay said Circle Health Group regretted the incident and told the court: “The company wish to express sincere remorse. It takes this matter extremely seriously and what happened at the Hampshire Clinic is very much the exception… it was an isolated incident.”

He added: “It’s a matter of enormous regret to the company and senior management.”

He argued that there were health and safety systems in place across the company but that these were not implemented at the Hampshire Clinic

“It’s very clear that this is a case where company systems that are in place everywhere else have not filtered through and been implemented at this isolated site,” he said.

Mr Kay asked the judge to consider Circle Health Group’s role during the pandemic.

He said the group “opened up its doors to take the strain off the NHS”, adding: “It’s difficult to imagine a company being able to put before a court something more admirable than that.”

The judge questioned what might have happened if there were patients with disabilities in the pool at the time of the chlorine leak.

Mr Kay said checks of the pool were carried out in the morning before it was open to patients.

Judge Pattinson said the court has the “deepest sympathy” for Mr Coombs and the two other members of staff who inhaled the chlorine gas.

He added: “I think everyone knows that inhalation of chlorine gas could be fatal, but it’s not as simple as that. Was it likely that this would result?”

The judge accepted Circle Health Group’s argument that the strong smell gives a “clear warning” and that the plant room was “self-contained and easy to exit”, resulting in a “low likelihood of death”.

He took into account the company’s efforts during Covid and its early guilty plea and reduced the fine significantly because of this.

Circle Health Group was fined £160,000 along with £190 surcharge and £12,520.03 costs, totalling £172,710.03.

HSE inspector Francesca Arnold said: “Swimming and therapy pool operators must comply with their general duties under the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974, which includes making a suitable and sufficient risk assessment of the health and safety risks to their workers and users including the risks of operating pool water treatment systems and the incompatible mixing of chemicals.

“Chlorine derivatives in pools are a well-established method of disinfectant provision and the accidental addition of acid to hypochlorite is the commonest cause of chlorine release incidents in pool buildings, it is fortunate that the injuries suffered were not more serious or even fatal.”