Firms risk penalties for 'bug' deaths

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COMPANIEs could face prosecution for deaths and injuries caused by a failure to get to grips with the "millennium bug".

The Health and Safety Executive yesterday warned that while it was still attempting to persuade organisations to tackle potentially dangerous problems associated with the millennium, it would "lose patience" by the start of next year.

Clive Norris, director of safety policy at the executive, said that he was "concerned rather than alarmed" by the number of organisations - largely among the 3.7 million small and medium-sized firms - which had not come to terms with the bug.

Mr Norris said that the HSE would begin using "enforcement notices" to make sure businesses assessed all possible risks and would issue orders closing down processes if necessary. The ultimate penalty for flouting advice in dangerous circumstances would be legal action leading to fines of hundreds of thousands of pounds and, in extreme cases, imprisonment.

The executive pointed out that computers can confuse many of the dates around the millennium with an instruction to close down. This could have a potentially disastrous impact on the nuclear, oil and chemical industries or any other sector involved in hazardous processes.

The HSE has targeted companies involved in such activities, but believes that the big organisations have already taken the necessary measures. The potential problem is that smaller sub-contractors are involved in the installation and maintenance of plants and may not be fully responsive to safeguards introduced by the big companies.

Launching a guidance pamphlet "Health and Safety and the Year 2000 Problem", the HSE warned about so-called "embedded chips" in systems - which might be integral to processes but could escape inspection.

Smaller companies are also involved in providing fire and security alarms which could be vulnerable to the millennium bug. Such equipment could fail to activate or could register false alarms. Lift companies might also fail to undertake maintenance because electronic systems often control the frequency of inspections.

The executive reiterated its advice that computer problems could occur on a number of dates around 2000, because the combination of digits could be misinterpreted. Difficulties could occur on 1 January and 9 September next year and in 2000 on 1 January, 29 February, 1 March and 31 December. There could also be a problem on 1 January 2001.

Mr Norris said that time was running out for businesses to assess potential difficulties. "Those that find they do have a problem need to set about tackling it too - and the sooner the better."

He pointed out that there were only 150 working days before computers encountered difficulties.

"Doing nothing is not an option. At the very least you should identify whether you have a problem or not," he said.

Mr Norris argued that the kills required to deal with the millennium bug were in heavy demand. "They will be scarcer and more expensive, the longer you delay."