On 7th January High Wycombe magistrates court fined the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) £660,000 for safety failures over a 2019 incident where a contractor narrowly avoided an electrical shock. AWE staff incorrectly indicated on a form that electricity was cut off from a building and gave out keys to a switch room containing a live 415 volt supply to workers carrying out an asbestos survey. In sentencing District Judge Malcolm Dodds said AWE’s behaviour involved “material and significant failings”.
The prosecution was initiated by the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) under Section 3 of the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act. AWE pleaded guilty to the offence. ONR is also responsible for regulating conventional health and safety on nuclear licensed sites. In 2018 ONR successfully prosecuted AWE for an electrical accident and they were fined £1 million.
In this incident, two workers from contractor Gully Howard were carrying out an asbestos survey on a disused police gym that was scheduled for demolition. A work form provided to them and signed by the AWE facilities manager had “power isolated and disconnected” written on it. While electricity within the building had been turned off, there was still a live supply to the switch board.
The workers used a chisel to unscrew a flashguard so that it could be tested for asbestos. Although there was a warning sign on the door to the switch room and a safety tag on the fuse box, they believed the electricity supply was disconnected and that they were authorised to enter the room as they had been given the keys. An electrical arc from the live supply to the chisel resulted in what the judge described as “a big bang”, but the worker was not injured.
AWE’s barrister, James Maxwell-Scott QC, agreed that the incident could potentially have resulted in somebody dying, but argued that the likelihood of that happening was low. He also suggested that some blame for the incident also lay with the Gully Howard staff, one of whom was a supervisor.
The judge rejected these arguments and ruled that there was a medium likelihood of harm. As AWE owned the site and had invited Gully Howard to come and carry out the work, there was a greater duty on them to provide clear messaging. As the circumstances indicated they had authorisation to enter the switch room, the contractors’ actions in ignoring the warning and removing the safety tag were understandable, he ruled.
In determining the size of the fine, the judge took into account AWE’s size as a company. The judge counted the previous conviction and a 2015 enforcement notice about an earlier electrical incident as aggravating factors. AWE’s response, including a new key management system put in place by Head of Operations Hadyn Clulow, and cooperation with the investigation, were counted as mitigating factors, as was the fact that no injury had occurred.
The judge also stated that AWE’s work was “valued” and that had been taken into account. He ruled that the mitigating and aggravating factors ruled each other out. The AWE fine would have been £1 million, but it was reduced by a third down to £660,000 due to an early guilty plea. AWE were also ordered to pay prosecution costs of £9,945.