Tragic teacher who was ‘scared’ of being at work died after contracting coronavirus… now an investigation has found her college broke health and safety laws

A college broke health and safety laws in the months leading up to the death of a beloved teacher who became seriously unwell after contracting coronavirus, an investigation has found.

Donna Coleman told her family she was scared of coming into work at Burnley College in the weeks before she tested positive for the virus on December 14, 2020. She had expressed concerns to her sister about the institution’s reaction to the pandemic, but didn’t say anything for fear of losing her job.

Following the 42-year-old’s death on January 6, 2021, an investigation was launched by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) after a number of concerns were raised about alleged shortcomings in Covid-19 control measures in place at the college at the time.

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Laura Snelgrove, HM Inspector of Health and Safety concluded that the college broke a number of health and safety laws including a failure to meet social distancing requirements, failing to inform close contacts of those who tested positive, and a failure to monitor and enforce the wearing of face coverings.

The investigation found evidence of a Christmas party for all staff members on December 18, 2020. At the time, Lancashire was in a ‘very high alert’ tier, where socializing was banned within outdoor and indoor spaces and hospitality and entertainment venues were closed due to the high number of cases in the community.

Burnley College

An anonymous source told the HSE that those attending the party failed to socially distance, and investigators were also sent a video clip of the party which proved that strict guidelines on person-to-person contact were not being adhered to.

Ms Snelgrove also found evidence that there was a failure to meet social distancing requirements within the office Donna shared with two colleagues – one of whom also tested positive for Covid-19 on December 14, and used the office at least part of the time that they worked there.

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“The workspace was relatively small and as such didn’t allow for social distancing,” Ms Snelgrove said. “The only ventilation option available in Donna’s office was a window, which relied on the confidence of employees to open the window during winter months.”

The investigation also found evidence that meetings held within the college with external parties did not meet social distancing guidelines. A photograph was sent to the HSE which showed staff, including Ms Coleman, standing side by side – with nobody in the photograph wearing face coverings.

The college was also found to have failed to inform close contacts of those who tested positive, with staff actively being encouraged not to report close contacts, and that staff and students weren’t notified if they were defined as a ‘contact.’ Evidence was also found that some senior managers and staff members failed to monitor and enforce the wearing of face coverings.

Burnley College have since been issued with a notification of contravention (NoC) which details how the health and safety laws were broken. The school will also have to pay a fee of an undisclosed amount in relation to the breaches.

Ms Snelgrove said: “Burnley College had failed to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety, and welfare of their employees at work because they had not implemented necessary measures to prevent the spread of COVID19. Burnley College took steps in early 2021 to improve COVID-19 control measures.”

Donna Coleman (left) with her sister

As there is no longer a requirement for all employers to consider Covid-19 in their statutory health and safety risk assessments, no further actions are required of the college at this point, the report stated.

The investigation concluded that the evidence presented as to whether Ms Coleman contracted the virus at work, or as a result of work activity is inconclusive. “It is impossible to conclude that from the evidence presented, on the balance of probabilities, that Donna Coleman’s exposure to Covid-19 took place within the workplace,” Ms Snelgrove said.

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“The evidence does not present a specific, identifiable incident that led to an increased risk of exposure and there is no clear link between Donna Coleman’s work and exposure to Covid-19. The information gathered confirms that at the time when Donna Coleman tested positive for COVID19, the general levels of COVID-19 infection within the community was very high.”

The University and College Union (UCU), alongside Donna’s family, have confirmed they are appealing the finding. 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 deadly second wave of Covid.

“While 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.

Donna with her two sisters

“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.”

Donna worked as a lecturer at Burnley College where she mostly dealt with students pursuing vocational courses. Many of her pupils of her were either older people who had found themselves unemployed, teenagers who had been excluded from school or people with special educational needs.

Her sister said: “She cared, she believed and I think that’s a huge part of teaching, you’ve got to believe in people. She was so straight laced, she wasn’t one to be messed with. Donna was the loveliest person and would have done anything for anyone.”

Ms Coleman was in daily contact with her two sisters, who had both worked at the college previously. The family, along with their brother moved to the Rossendale Valley while the siblings were young, having previously lived in Bolton.

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Donna first tested positive for Covid on December 14, after beginning to feel ill a few days earlier. She dealt with symptoms for weeks, feeling unwell but expecting to eventually begin to recover.

It was not until December 29 that her family realized how serious things were. They received a message in a group chat from Donna telling them she had been admitted to A&E at Blackburn Royal Hospital. ‘I don’t want to worry you’ she said before explaining she had needed to call an ambulance after struggling to breathe.

Donna Coleman

Four days later, on Sunday, January 3, Donna was in touch again with good news. She told her family she was feeling better and had managed to eat her breakfast – it seemed that things were looking up. However, just a few hours afterwards, Donna’s father Daniel Coleman – who had been checking in with the hospital each day – received a shocking update.

Doctors told him his daughter would need to be put into a medically induced coma and placed on a ventilator. The following day, her sister de ella and her father de ella were allowed to visit Donna in the hospital and she says it was at this point she felt her sister de ella would not be waking up.

Hours after their visit, doctors informed the family that Donna’s organs had begun to fail. Then, on January 6, the family paid a final visit to see Donna. The sisters, who had been so close throughout their lives de ella, sat and held hands with her as the life-support machines were switched off. Donna died later that day, surrounded by her family.

Burnley College has been approached for comment.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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