AWE fined £1 million for electrical injury incident

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Reading magistrates court seen from Castle Street

The Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) was fined £1 million for an incident on 27th June 2017 when an employee suffered electrical burns. During sentencing on 9th November 2018 at Reading Magistrates' Court District Judge Davinder Lachhar described the incident as “an accident waiting to happen” and said it was fortunate that the employee was not seriously injured.

The accident occurred when a member of the electrical maintenance team inserted a piece of cable into an electrical cabinet and made contact with an exposed bus bar which was live and carrying a 400v current.  The court was told that the employee did not suffer an electric shock, but received electrical burns to his forearm. It emerged during the hearing that AWE had been sent an enforcement letter following a similar incident in 2015, but either did not act or did not take sufficient action.

The court heard that the equipment had been installed in 1985 and that a risk assessment had been carried out for the activity, but that the assessment had failed to anticipate that the task would be undertaken in proximity to live terminals.

The prosecution followed an investigation by the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR), who are responsible for conventional workplace health and safety at nuclear licensed sites. The incident in question did not involve nuclear material or radiation risk. AWE pleaded guilty to the offence at an earlier hearing in September.

The £1m fine is the maximum recommended fine for an offence of this type, with the standard one third reduction due to the fact that AWE pleaded guilty at the earliest opportunity. The severity of the fine was due to their failure to act on the earlier warning and the age of the equipment. Judge Lachhar said that she could have increased the size of the fine because AWE is such a large company, but had decided not to because AWE had reported the incident promptly, complied with investigations and had a generally good safety record.

Judge Lachhar also criticised some of the changes made by AWE after the incident. The exposed bus bar was covered with tape rather than using industry standard insulation material and employees were still not wearing gloves until these shortfalls were highlighted in an ONR follow-up inspection in April 2018.

In a statement Donald Urquhart, ONR’s Deputy Chief Inspector and Director of Operating Facilities regulation, said: “This related to a conventional safety hazard and should have been avoided - and indeed would have been - had the right procedures and processes for safety been in place. Fortunately, in this case the individual involved was not seriously harmed but easily could have been.”

A statement issued by AWE said: “We reiterate our deep regret that the incident of 27 June 2017 occurred, and that a member of staff received a minor injury as a result. We always take our health and safety responsibilities extremely seriously and have co-operated fully with the ONR throughout the course of this investigation.”