Flimsy rope led to death of grandmother, 87, who fell down boiler room stairs at Midlothian care home
A care home charity responsible for accommodation where a grandmother fell down stairs to her death has pleaded guilty to health and safety violations.
Nazareth Care Charitable Trust admitted not doing enough to prevent Sheila Whitehead, 87, from losing her life at its care home in Bonnyrigg.
Mrs Whitehead died after falling down stairs at the facility on May 16, 2017. She had poor eyesight and managed to stumble past a rope which was supposed to hold residents back.
However, investigators found the rope wasn’t strong enough to bear any great weight.
Edinburgh Sheriff Court heard on how workers at the home found her lying in a “foetal” position with blood pouring out of her head.
Horrified staff members phoned for an ambulance but Mrs Whitehead, who had stayed at the home for four years, later died from her injuries in hospital.
Health and Safety Executive Investigators launched an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the pensioner’s death.
They concluded that bosses at the charity should have had physical barriers at the top of the staircase to prevent residents from using it.
Bosses at the trust responsible for the Nazareth House property were later charged with breaching health and safety laws.
On Thursday, the trust pleaded guilty to breaching sections three and 33 of the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act.
Legal papers lodged at the court stated that the trust 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.”
Depute procurator fiscal Catriona Dow told the court that the trust has close links to the Sisters of Nazareth, an order of the Roman Catholic Church.
The court heard that Mrs Whitehead had been a resident at the facility for four years and was known to be “very independent”.
Mrs Dow told the court that in the time leading up tot he fall, a GP found that Mrs Whitehead’s eyesight was deteriorating and that she had cataracts.
Staff knew about Mrs Whitehead’s health issues at the time of the accident.
Mrs Dow then told the court that Mrs Whitehead fell down stairs on the ground floor of the home - the stairs led to the boiler room.
Mrs Dow said staff heard Mrs Whitehead falling and a female worker went to see what happened.
She added: “She found Mrs Whitehead lying on the ground with her zimmer beside her. She was lying in a foetal position.
“The staff member shouted for help. Mrs Whitehead was drifting in and out of consciousness and there was a pool of blood coming from her head.
“An ambulance was called and Mrs Whitehead was taken to hospital. She later died.”
Mrs Dow told the court that the Health and Safety Executive launched an investigation. They later found that a red rope was used to seal off the staircase. Investigators concluded that the rope was inadequate and couldn’t stop people from using the stairs.
Mrs Dow added: “The red rope couldn’t bear any great weight and was intended only as a visual deterrent.
“It was not an effective physical barrier.”
Defence advocate Susan Duff told the court that a health and safety consultant had earlier assessed the stair case and concluded that handrails needed to be installed.
Mrs Duff said the consultant didn’t say anything about the red rope.
She added: “He did not say anything about the red rope or the need for a physical barrier to prevent a fall.”
Mrs Duff said that if the consultant said about the need for a physical barrier then the charity would have installed such measures.
The advocate said that as a consequence of Mrs Whitehead’s death, the charity had improved their health and safety measures and that employees had been sent on training to learn more about risks to residents’s safety.
She added: “The death of Mrs Whitehead has affected staff greatly - they were deeply upset by her death.
“The staff at the home strive to create a happy, comfortable and safe environment for their residents who are people who cannot live alone.
“The Chief Executive of Nazareth Care Charitable Trust is present in court today and he has instructed me to to tender his deepest condolences to Mrs Whitehead’s family.”
Mrs Duff asked Sheriff Thomas Welsh QC to impose a fine on her clients. She asked Sheriff Welsh to impose a fine which reflected the charity’s guilty plea and would allow it to continue providing services.
Sheriff Welsh said he’d issue his decision about the penalty he will impose on the charity on Tuesday November 5 2019.