Rolls-Royce pleads guilty to breaking safety laws after employees exposed to radiation

The company that builds the nuclear reactors which power the Royal Navy’s fleet of submarines has pleaded guilty to seven charges of breaching safety and environmental laws after employees were exposed to high levels of radiation at one of the company’s factories in Derby.

Rolls-Royce Marine Power Operations Ltd were accused of undertaking “DIY work” in a critical area of safety after a harmful radiation source fell out of a safety container, which had been modified by Rolls-Royce without consulting the supplier or undertaking a proper risk assessment and was then handled by a radiographer and three welders.

The company pleaded at Derby Crown Court on 30 July to a prosecution brought jointly by the Health and Safety Executive and the Environment Agency for breaching the Environmental Permitting Regulations 2010, the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 and the Ionising Radiations Regulations 1999.

According to the Derby Telegraph, the court heard that the incident occurred when a component was being tested by a radiographer in a laboratory at the Rolls-Royce site at Sinfin Lane, Derby, on 3 March 2011.  After the test the radiographer believed that the radioactive material in the testing system had returned to its sealed safety container, but it had in fact fallen from the system into the component being tested.

Welders working in the laboratory later noticed a foreign item in the component, which was handled by them as they attempted to identify it.  Two radiographers were asked for their views, and when one of them touched the item his personal radiation alarm went off.  He dismissed the alarm, thinking it was caused by a fault, but then noticed that the monitor detected less radiation as he walked away from the mystery object.

The workers then realised that the object was radioactive and the laboratory was immediately cleared.  When they realised that the object they had been holding was a radioactive source, the workers were said to be in a state of panic.  One man started banging his against the wall and another wanted to go straight to hospital, the court was told.

The overall radiation that their whole bodies were exposed to during the incident did not exceed the annual permitted amount, but their hands had been exposed to amounts that exceeded safety limits.

Although the employees had so far not experienced any physical health implications, they had suffered years of anxiety and worry about long-term implications for their health, particularly the possibility of an increased risk of cancer.  Rolls-Royce has since paid compensation to the employees and has provided them with counselling and medical advice.

Barrister Andrew Marshall, prosecuting for the Health and Safety Executive, said that the lost radioactive source was only recovered because of the find by the welders and the coincidental presence of radiographers who turned up at the same moment. Had it not been identified “its movements would have been very much less certain and it’s likely that it would have either been lost, or handled by more people”.

The court also heard that alarms used to warn workers were either turned off or not working.

A subsequent investigation revealed that the radioactive material had fallen out of its container because Rolls-Royce had modified the component testing system.  The company had done this without consulting the suppliers or conducting a proper risk assessment.

Mr Marshall said that Roll-Royce had “effectively got on with DIY work” in a critical area of safety “without thinking it through what the risks were to manufacturing process” and had “created something which was ultimately dangerous.”

James Ageros, representing Rolls-Royce, admitted that the safety breach had been serious but claimed the company had been negligent, rather than reckless, over the incident.

Rolls-Royce Marine Power Operations pleaded guilty to failing to provide staff with appropriate written operating instructions; failing to provide sufficient training; failing to prevent the loss of sealed radioactive sources; failing to ensure the health and safety and welfare of employees and non-employees in respect of exposure to radiation; failing to make suitable and sufficient assessment of the risks of health and safety of its employees; and failing to ensure that employees and others were not exposed to unsafe levels of ionising radiation.

The court has adjourned before Rolls-Royce is sentenced.

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