A school maintenance manager who was disciplined after raising concerns about legionella bacteria was constructively dismissed, a tribunal ruled.
Bev Parkinson resigned after he was disciplined for highlighting problems with legionella bacteria at a group of schools within Highland Council.
He worked for Mears Facilities Management, but was concerned the outsourcing company was not taking the discovery seriously enough.
The bug, which can cause Legionnaires’ disease if not properly handled, was discovered in five schools in the council area in 2019, with Mr Parkinson writing a report stating that Mears did not have proper risk assessments or testing regimes in place.
The document, which was later accepted by the maintenance firm, also claimed the buildings, constructed under controversial private finance initiatives, had poorly designed water systems that made the bacteria more likely to develop.
Claims he brought the company into disrepute
In 2010, Kinlochleven High School was forced to close its doors due to the discovery of legionella, while measures – including filters being fitted to taps – were again put in place at the school in 2019.
Mears said it was not uncommon to discover the bacteria, adding that improvement works have since been carried out at the schools and there are no health and safety concerns.
The firm disciplined Mr Parkinson after he flagged his concerns and claimed he had brought the company into disrepute.
He decided to resign and took his case to an employment tribunal and has now been awarded almost £9,000 for constructive dismissal, with employment judge James Hendry finding he was dismissed because he made a protected disclosure.
The judge also found Mr Parkinson’s manager, Tom Griffin, who had been aware of the issues for some time, showed a “surprising lack of urgency” in dealing with the problems.
“Significant compliance issues” in schools
The tribunal heard Mr Parkinson took on the role of contracts manager in October 2017 – around the same time Highland Council began an audit into water management compliance.
The audit found there were “significant compliance issues” in the schools in relation to the “design and operation of the systems”.
An improvement plan was put in place and Mr Parkinson was designated as the person responsible for water management within a group of schools.
He worked alongside a council representative who took samples from the schools over several months “which showed some of the schools to have dirty water”.
When Mr Parkinson raised this with Mr Griffin, the senior manager claimed the council employee was being “overzealous” and advised that staff at the school should run the taps to clear the dirt.
Following further concerns, Mr Parkinson arranged for further water samples to be taken at Kinlochleven High School in April 2019 and some tested positive for legionella.
Other schools were then sampled and a further four tested positive for the bacteria.
The tribunal judgment stated: “The results concerned Highland Council.
“The claimant updated Mr Griffin who appeared unconcerned.
“Mr Griffin’s position was that it was normal to get positive results from time to time.”
Mr Parkinson then went on to write a report on the matter, which stated the water systems in the schools had led to “dead legs” that increased the likelihood of legionella developing.
It added risk assessments were not audited to ensure efficacy and Mears policies and procedures were “technically incorrect”.
Following its publication, Mr Parkinson was suspended by Mears and a disciplinary investigation was launched.
The firm believed he had exaggerated the problems and took exception to his claims about the competency of Mears’ staff.
Bosses were also unhappy that he had written that the bug could “cause death in the most extreme case”.
However, Mr Parkinson felt he was being scapegoated.
The judgment states: “The claimant did not know why he was being disciplined for preparing the report, especially as the company had accepted its terms.
“He had not been told that the report should be confidential and only disclosed to Alpha Schools.”
Following a string of other issues with the disciplinary process, he decided to resign on December 6.
He also reported Mears to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) Scotland.
In February 2020, the HSE wrote to Mears referring to positive legionella samples at Kinlochleven High School and stating “they had identified contraventions of health and safety law”.
Judge Hendry stated: “The terms of the HSE findings are much more supportive of the claimant’s position than the considerably more relaxed attitude Mr Griffin took.
“It seems to me that they support the claimant’s position that these were exceptionally serious failures.”
“We will continue to use robust monitoring methods”
Mears said improvement works have been completed at the schools, including pipes, boilers and expansion tanks being replaced.
A spokesman stated: “Mears want to underline and reassure that this isn’t uncommon within buildings.
“Mears would like to make clear there are no health and safety concerns.
“We would like to assure the community that water is tested on a very regular basis and is monitored to the highest standards in compliance with Health and Safety law and HS Guidelines.
“The current regime of water management, audit, and testing procedures exceed that required from legislative and industry guidelines.
“We will continue to use robust monitoring methods to ensure systems are in control.”