Deteriorating military safety performance puts public and environment at risk

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An official annual report has found “significant weaknesses” in the Ministry of Defence's safety performance and plots a deteriorating trend in military safety.

The 2010 report of the Defence and Environment Safety Board – the MoD's senior environment and safety panel which reports to Ministers on safety matters - found that there had been “little evidence of improvement since last year”, with a “lack of real progress” and “potential for degradation from numerous change programmes”.

Shortage of skilled personnel, a failure to learn from previous accidents, and the rapid rate of change in the Ministry of Defence are key concerns, and the report found that the risk of further degradation in safety and environmental management arrangements remains “high”.

The number of safety-related deaths of MoD personnel more than doubled over the year, rising from 7 to 15, and four Crown Improvement Notices requiring action to tackle safety shortfalls were issued, compared with zero in 2009.

Military fuels storage infrastructure, much of which “is beyond its designated life” and “falls below current legislative requirements in key areas”, is described as a “high-level risk”.  The report warns that “most of the MoD UK coastal bulk fuel depots have ongoing substandard secondary containment (bunding) concerns”.

The condition of the MoD's explosives estate is a “primary concern” and the report notes that civilian contractors are able to handle, access and control military explosives on MOD establishments without making applications to relevant authorities in a timely manner.  Changes in company ownership have rendered existing explosives handling licences void and led to exemptions being granted by the police when they are not valid.

There are also worries over air safety, with safety reviews confirming suspicions voiced during the Haddon-Cave review into the crash of an RAF Nimrod aircraft in Afghanistan in 2006 that safety shortfalls extend beyond the Nimrod fleet.  'Brownout' (dust obscuring helicopter landings), the risk of mid-air collision, reductions in personnel, and helicopter collisions with wires and obstructions are listed as strategic risks where safety matters may not be receiving sufficient priority.

Failure of some Royal Navy ships to comply with marine environmental legislation – including the two Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers currently under construction and new Type 45 destroyers - could limit operational capability, as ships could be refused entry to port in some countries.  The report notes “increasing pressures on manpower and some equipment fragility” in keeping the Vanguard class submarines which carry the UK's Trident nuclear missiles constantly at sea on patrol, and says that nuclear safety standards have been "further aggravated by constraints on regulatory capacity".

The Board found that the safety implications of last year's Strategic Defence and Security Review had not been formally assessed.  Insufficient time was allowed to assess the impact of options before decisions were made, meaning that the full impacts of decisions made during the Review might not be known for several years.

The report notes that it is “unclear” what impact the Defence Reform Review that is currently under way will have on safety, but that “the need to reduce costs and the severe reduction in personnel numbers will undoubtedly place a severe strain on safety systems”.

Nuclear Information Service Director Peter Burt said: “A private company would never be able to get away with such a poor safety performance as that shown by the Ministry of Defence.  The directors would face prison sentences and heavy fines and the company would be prohibited from undertaking dangerous activities until improvements had been made.

“The Ministry's disregard for safety put members of the public, armed forces personnel, and the environment at risk, and improving safety standards must become the top priority for Ministers.

“Defence safety should be brought under the control of independent external regulators and the crown exemptions which mean that the military do not have to comply with the same safety standards as everyone else must be abolished.”