On 16 May 2017, Sheila Whitehead, 87, lost her life at a Nazareth House care home in Bonnyrigg, Scotland. Mrs Whitehead, who had poor eyesight and walked with a zimmer frame, died after falling down the stairs at the care home. She managed to stumble past a rope which was supposed to hold residents back and fell to her death.
The HSE launched an investigation into the circumstances surrounding her death and concluded that the charity should have had physical barriers at the top of the stairs to prevent residents from using it. Investigators stated that there was a red rope used to seal off the staircase but that this was inadequate and did not stop people from using the stairs as it could not bear any weight and was intended only as a visual deterrent.
The HSE stated that the care home had failed to 'identify and implement adequate measures required to control the risk of the said residents falling down a set of stairs...and said Sheila Whitehead fell down the set of stairs sustaining severe injuries from which she died on May 16 2017'. Nazareth Care Charitable Trust was responsible for the care home and pleaded guilty to breaching section 3(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974.
On 5 November 2019 at Edinburgh Sheriff Court Sheriff Thomas Welsh QC delivered the sentencing decision imposed on the charity. He said that the charity had committed a 'very serious breach' of health and safety legislation by failing to have an 'effective physical barrier' at the stairs. He assessed the culpability as being at the highest level on the scale given that concerns over the stairwell had been raised repeatedly and he categorised the harm as also being at the highest level due to the 'flimsy' rope and the 'known and obvious frailty' of the residents.
The charity's turnover placed it as a medium sized organisation, where fines could run between £600,000 and £2.5 million. However, Sheriff Walsh stated that he was treating the charity as a micro-organisation for the purpose of sentencing as it derived no profits and that a starting point of £600,000 was 'excessive and disproportionate.'
When considering the level of fine, Sheriff Walsh took into consideration factors including:
- The charity had decided to plead guilty at the earliest opportunity;
- Following the incident, the charity had carried out extensive health and safety training for staff, sending 24 managers and members of regional support teams on an Institute of Occupational Safety and Health Managing Safely Course in 2017 and would be sending a further 12 managers by the end of this year;
- The charity made immediate improvements to health and safety, installing locked doors with keypads at staircases across all Nazareth Care premises; and
- A substantial fine would significantly impact the charity's ability to care for “vulnerable residents”.
Sheriff Walsh stated that "these factors clearly demonstrate a very responsible attitude taken by those controlling the charity to address what happened and ensure it never occurs again." The charity was fined £40,000.