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Inquest into death of Damian Bowen who died of asphyxiation at work

“Lax enforcement” of operating procedures contributed to lab worker's death

Posted on 03 November 2016

Damian Bowen, 32, died on 27 October 2011, when he was asphyxiated in a small room storing liquid nitrogen at the St Stephen’s Centre at the Chelsea & Westminster Hospital.  

At a two week inquest into Damian’s death his family was represented by solicitor Daniel Easton at the High Court in London.

Damian had degrees in genetics and medical science and had embarked on a successful career in medicine, joining the Chelsea & Westminster Hospital in 2011.  

Part of his lab duties involved decanting liquid nitrogen into a smaller dewar flask to conduct experiments into HIV.  He was working in the lab late one night when he was overcome in a small room which stored liquid nitrogen.  

Liquid nitrogen reaches boiling point at -195 °C and is used in research to freeze samples during experiments.  When the liquid becomes gas it expands to 700 times its size and displaces oxygen.  It is odorless, colorless, and tasteless, and reportedly causes asphyxia without any sensation or warning.

The exact circumstances of Damian’s death remain unclear but evidence was heard at the inquest, and accepted by the jury, that Damian was working alone, with his senior colleagues’ knowledge, decanting liquid nitrogen.  It came out at the inquest that the ventilation system in the room, which was described in expert evidence as being of “critical importance”, had been turned off.

The Inquest jury criticised “insufficient control, unclear responsibility… as well as lax enforcement of the relevant SOPs [Standard Operating Procedures]” as contributing to Damian’s death.

The Health & Safety Executive continues to investigate criminal proceedings.

Damian’s family described him as “a kind gentle personality with a strong moral compass which led him into a career helping others”.  They said “It is impossible to put into words the devastation felt by our family at the loss of Damian.  It is still a horrific event to come to terms with.  We all miss him very much and it is still painful to think of what he has missed in life, what he would be doing now and what we are missing without having him here.”

Daniel Easton, who represented the family over the five year legal process, said:

“We heard evidence that the room in which Damian was working was unsuitable for decanting liquid nitrogen and that the ventilation system, which was in fully working order, was apparently switched off the night Damian died. The ventilation system was described as crucial.

"We consider this was a preventable death and that had the appropriate safety measures been in place, Damian would still be here. We therefore hope that lessons are learned so that a tragedy such as this never happens again.”