Safety warning over Millennium bug

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The "Millennium bug" could have several bites at computer files, with a potentially disastrous impact on safety.

Barrie Clement, Labour Editor finds that systems may be unable to cope with other dates.

Safety experts yesterday warned that lives could be at risk through computer failure on eight other dates around 2000.

Apart from the millennium itself, industries, transport companies and hospitals should be aware that systems which only recognise the final two digits in year dates could also crash on 1 January 1999. Many computers recognise the figures "99" as a signal to close down. A similar problem could occur on 9 September 1999 (9/9/99).

For more complex technical reasons, networks which interface with the Global Positioning System, satellite-based technology used by ships to remain on course and oil rigs to stay on station, could have a problem on 22 August 1999.

Some computers may also be unable to cope with 29 February 2000, a "leap day" which may not appear in some system's calendars. The following day may cause problems because it would be an unexpected leap day; 31 December and 1 January 2001 could cause similar emergencies.

The Health and Safety Executive yesterday issued a report, Safety and the Year 2000, which seeks to avoid the collapse of "Safety Critical Systems".

While the executive is anxious not to cause panic, and believes that most big companies have made adequate preparations, officials acknowledge that the "worse case scenario" could be the release of toxic material from chemical and oil plants, explosions, power black-outs, air crashes, and the shut down of critical systems in hospitals.

The HSE is convinced that such calamities are unlikely and that nuclear plants in particular have the situation under control.

They are less confident about the abilities of Eastern European industries. The executive is to send representatives to the European Commission and to consult on potential problems on the Continent, but they are more concerned about the preparations, or lack of them, in the former Communist bloc. Safety experts believe that the Chernobyl disaster may be an indication of a dangerously low technological expertise.

Closer to home, Real Time Engineering, which is advising the HSE, is worried about the ability of 3.7 million small and medium-sized companies to deal with the bug.

While large chemical groups for instance are thought to be abreast of the situation, the sector also relies for production on small companies, which may not have the resources to ensure that their operations are safe.

David Eves, the HSE's deputy director general, said that businesses should be aware of the dangers.

"It's not worth taking a chance and thinking it will be all right on the night," he said. Companies should contact their computer suppliers or engage reputable consultants if they believe they may have a problem.

A report drawn up by Real Time Engineering warns that safety critical functions may be buried in systems and that some networks are dependent on smaller associated computers.

Asked why publication of the report was delayed by five months when the HSE was emphasising urgency, Mr Eves said it had been important to ensure that advice was both correct and comprehensive. He believed that the study would have been ignored if it had been released a year ago, because it was not seen as an issue by the media.