Stornoway Sheriff rules death of Island care worker could have been prevented

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A health worker’s fatal accident could have been avoided if an appropriate weather warning was issued by her NHS employers, a Stornoway Sheriff has ruled.

Lorna Macdonald, 26, a speech and language therapist, died in November 2011 when her car plunged into Loch Nan Uidhean, on Harris, during a torrential storm. She was returning from an appointment in Leverburgh.

Following a lengthy Fatal Accident Inquiry (FAI) at Stornoway Sheriff Court earlier this year, Sheriff Sutherland ruled on Monday that her death by drowning might have been avoided if her employers at NHS Western Isles had warned her not to travel to the outlying area in severe weather conditions.

Sheriff Sutherland, in his ruling, said: “Young professionals with a sense of responsibility for their patients will always endeavour to do their best for them. Management has a duty to protect employees from risks resulting from this sense of duty.”

“While every employee has a duty to look after their own health and safety, this does not remove the responsibility of employers.”

The health board had approved a Managing Work- Related Driving Risks policy two months before Lorna’s death. However, it was not placed on the staff intranet advice service until December 2011, the month after the accident.

During the inquiry, Lorna’s mother, Peggy Flora Macdonald, said she believed the health board should have “prevented anybody going out in such conditions”. She said: “As soon as they became aware of the conditions they should have stopped people going out.”

Sheriff Sutherland continued: “NHS Western Isles had in place a Home Working Policy, revised in December 2007.One of its policy aims was to ‘make sure that the risk of working alone is assessed in a systematic way and that safe systems and methods of work are put in place to reduce the risk so far as is reasonably practicable’.

“This policy stated ‘All employees undertaking home visits should ensure that there is a designated responsible person who will initiate communications with the person undertaking the home visits when that person does not report or communicate back when expected’.”

The sheriff said the responsibility to identify that person was that of the line manager.

He added: “In addition, [the policy] stated: ‘A diary should be kept by the line manager outlaying all of the visits in which lone working is going to occur’. None of these measures were implemented and are relevant to the circumstances of death.”

Sheriff Sutherland concluded: “These failures, while not justifying a determination that they contributed to the deceased’s death, certainly might have prevented her death if her journey had not been undertaken.

The Tarbert fire crew were the first emergency service to arrive at the scene, but the crew was not trained in water rescue.

Ms Macdonald was in the water for more than 40 minutes after the emergency services arrived at the loch. She was carried out of the car from the loch at 5.05pm but there was no sign of life. She was hooked up to a defibrillator and driven to hospital in Stornoway where she received CPR for 45 minutes. She was pronounced dead later that evening.

A spokesperson for NHS Western Isles said: “As the case is now subject to legal proceedings it is not possible to comment.” No-one at the family home was available to comment.