Science: Atomic policeman's never-ending beat: Tom Wilkie spends a day with a man whose job is protecting workers from radiation

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Last Friday, Her Majesty's Principal Radiation Inspector for the north of England took a day off work to appear in court. When James Taylor is not cross-examining companies on their use of radioactive sources, he keeps the criminal classes in order as the youngest magistrate on the bench of Salford magistrates' court.

Mr Taylor, 31, is one of only four field inspectors for the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) specialising in radiation protection. His expertise is brought to bear in hospital X- ray departments, dentists' surgeries and in some of the largest and most complex industrial plants in the country. Any place, in fact, where radiation is being used - other than the civil nuclear industry, which is the responsibility of another branch of the HSE, the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate.

As the Independent revealed last week, one worker using radioactive sources in industry, William Neilson, has died after receiving the highest radiation dose of anyone in post-war Britain. Mr Neilson was an industrial radiographer: he used radiation to 'X-ray' steel pipes and pressure vessels to detect hidden flaws in welds. According to official statistics, such radiographers are routinely exposed to disproportionately higher doses of radiation than workers in the nuclear industry.

Mr Taylor spends his days reminding companies of their responsibilities for worker safety. In principle, he has colossal power: he can walk into any place of work at any reasonable time and shut the whole operation down on the spot, by issuing a 'prohibition notice'. In practice, such authority is used sparingly.

There was little need for such drastic action at Mr Taylor's first port of call last Thursday, when the Independent accompanied him on an inspection. Mr Taylor arrived at Tameside General Hospital, Ashton-under-Lyne, about 15 minutes before he was expected. 'I always like to arrive early,' he commented. What he found was little short of exemplary.

Jean Baker, the hospital's superintendent radiographer, has charge of about 65 staff who are routinely exposed to ionising radiation in the course of their work. The hospital has 13 X-ray rooms, one nuclear medicine unit, one C-T scanner and seven mobile X-ray units.

Mrs Baker had the details at her fingertips: when each machine last underwent maintenance; a complete log of faults; and a copy of the 'local rules' for staff ranging from the radiographers themselves to the outside cleaning staff.

Mrs Baker even produced a written record of staff radiation doses going back 50 years. Every employer is legally obliged to arrange to have their employees' radiation doses measured and assessed by an 'approved dosimetry service', which then has to retain the records for 50 years. But Mrs Baker (and her predecessors) had been careful enough to ensure that they kept their own records as well.

Nonetheless, the magisterial manner came to the fore as Mr Taylor started an interrogation that he admitted might 'sound like the Spanish Inquisition'. To every question Mrs Baker gave a calm, unflustered answer. Mr Taylor remarked later: 'The crucial part of the inspection was the first five minutes. That gives you an impression of the management culture of the place.'

The HSE's job is not to make the workplace safe so much as to persuade, cajole and encourage managements to organise themselves for safety. Properly kept records and a safety agenda at management meetings are signs that a culture of safety awareness is in place, and, in that case, most of the inspector's job is already done.

The afternoon was spent at an enormous Shell Chemicals production plant at Carrington, just south of Manchester. There are four distinct plants on the site, producing detergents and anti-freeze as well as polystyrene, polyethylene and polypropylene. Raymond Plant, the radiation protection supervisor, is responsible for 31 radiation sources, including nine cobalt-60 units and 18 caesium-137 sources.

Radiation is vital to controlling the polyethylene plant. At the top of one of the production lines was a vast stainless steel hopper filled with viscous polyethylene. Two radiation sources are fixed to one side of the hopper, with corresponding radiation detectors on the other side. The polyethylene inside the tank acts as a radiation absorber, so that if its level falls the radiation detectors will register an increase because less radiation is being attenuated. This is the only way the operators can gauge the quantity of material in the hopper.

The process does not make the polyethylene radioactive, but Mr Taylor cross-questioned staff about checks intended to ensure that no radioactive contamination gets out. Although the site employs the National Radiological Protection Board (NRPB) as its external radiation protection adviser, there appeared to be an ambiguity in the records detailing the tests.

Throughout the plant there was abundant evidence of the priority that management accorded to the health and safety issue of fire and explosion. And Shell Carrington obviously took responsible care of the radioactive sources in its charge - locking them away inside a sealed bunker when not in use - although the documentation was not kept to as high a standard as Mrs Baker's.

But it was also clear that the dangers of industrial radiography were not as well recognised by the 'management culture' as those of fire and explosion. Shell used to do the work itself, Mr Plant explained, but now the checking of welds for flaws is subcontracted to outsiders who carry out their work during the night so as to minimise disruption. There is consequently minimal supervision of the radiographers' activities.

Mr Taylor explained the HSE's new, stricter guidance on the safety of such work and reminded Mr Plant that inspectors are taking an increasing interest in industrial radiography. Mr Taylor will be back to follow this up and to check on the NRPB's documentation of contamination tests. It is all part of his slow haul to ratchet radiation safety ever higher on managers' agenda. With the whole of northern England as his beat, Mr Taylor is not likely to run out of work.

(Photograph omitted)