Oil worker 'exposed to high radiation': Tom Wilkie talked to ex-employees critical of working practices and the lax culture in the radiation industry

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The Independent Online
CHARLES FISK was 22 when he became a 'bomber' - an industrial radiographer checking the welds in oil and gas pipelines for hidden defects. Ten years later he had advanced testicular cancer.

He underwent surgery to remove some of the secondary tumours in his lungs, stomach and spine. He also had prolonged chemotherapy. Disability and continuing pain have left him unable to work properly since 1982.

Mr Fisk believes that his cancers resulted from his work with powerful sources of gamma rays used for radiography. Usually kept within shielded containers, the sources are known in the industry as 'bombs' and those who used them, as bombers. 'I am absolutely certain that I was exposed to radiation levels outside what was accepted as safe in those days,' he said.

All radiation workers are required to wear film badges to measure the radiation dose to which they have been exposed. But according to Mr Fisk: 'It was generally understood that if you got a high dose you would be out of work. It was common practice to protect the film badge from high doses. The culture was lax.'

Another ex-bomber, Gavin Robertson, agrees. 'Leaving the badge in the van was so common. The guys were careful about the public, but couldn't give a shit about themselves,' he said.

Mr Fisk recalled one incident where 'I was not happy because I had to point the source at myself while I backed out through an inspection hatch. I wasn't happy because I was getting more than the limit'. His film badge was left off while he performed that radiograph, so that although he would receive the dose, it would not be recorded on his badge.

When the oil boom came to Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, it generated a demand for specialist inspection of the pipelines. Mr Fisk got a job with an industrial radiography company, now known as Oilfield Inspection Services, in the early 1970s after serving an apprenticeship as a fitter-machinist. He said: 'I mainly radiographed pipelines as they were being welded and laid from barges.'

After the extent of his illness became clear, Mr Fisk consulted lawyers about suing his former employers. However, the case was not pursued because legal advice indicated that there was not enough evidence to prove causation. Now, he makes a little money 'odd-jobbing round the boatyards', but gets severe pain down one side. 'I'm told it's scar tissue from where the tumours were in my spine,' he said.

Oilfield Inspection Services declined to comment yesterday.

Although some cancers may be caused by radiation, this is neither inevitable nor necessarily frequent. Unless there are clear indications of radiation damage, as in the cases of two industrial radiographers reported by the Independent earlier this week, the balance of probability is that in many people who have developed cancer after exposure to radiation the cancer is 'natural' and not caused by the radiation.

Mr Robertson, who left the industry because of his concern about safety, echoed Mr Fisk's picture of an industry whose working practices resembled the casual labour of a building site while employing potentially fatal instruments such as radiography sources. Mr Robertson, who did not work for the oil industry and was not employed by the same company as Mr Fisk, said: 'By the nature of the game, many are hire and fire companies. There is a pool of radiographers kicking their heels and waiting for a contract. If you do the work quickly then they don't ask any questions.'

Although the industry employs equipment created in the heart of nuclear reactors with exotic sounding names such as iridium-192, it is actually a low-tech process, according to Mr Robertson. The radiographer has to apply the source to the weld being radiographed and then withdraw to a safe distance while timing the length of the exposure. 'You're using your watch and running away,' he said.

'When working on location, there are frequently space problems of where to hide or run to. I can recall many times witnessing men standing beside an open source.'

Mr Robertson believes inspections have tightened safety practices since his day, but says: 'A lot of problems are going to come out from that era.'

(Photograph omitted)