Leading Article: Industrial safety affects us all

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THE HORRIFIC death of William Neilson, an industrial radiographer who was exposed to more radiation than anyone in Britain since the war, raises important issues of industrial safety. As we report today, Mr Neilson was employed by a company that subcontracted him to the BP oil refinery at Grangemouth. There he tested welds in pipework and pressure vessels. His work involved using portable equipment containing components that emit radiation more powerful and penetrating than that of hospital X-rays.

In 1988 he was diagnosed as suffering from radiation dermatitis. Two years later, part of his hand was amputated. His suffering increased steadily until he died in 1992. Yet no one has accepted responsibility, no compensation has been paid to his widow, and the Health and Safety Executive says there is no evidence of a breach of any regulations by anyone.

This is not good enough. Obviously it is more difficult to monitor safety among individual industrial radiographers, who often work on their own in inaccessible places, than in large nuclear power plants, but that is a poor excuse. There are about 8,000 registered industrial radiographers in Britain. In 1991, 60 received doses above the level that requires investigation, and 10 received more than the maximum legal dose. None of the 40,000 workers in the nuclear industry came near the maximum dose and only seven cases warranted investigation.

The existence of such statistics shows that monitoring is taking place, but Mr Neilson seems to have slipped through the net. Others may have done so, too. Even if he was an exception and the statistics are roughly accurate, supervision is clearly inadequate. Neither employers nor the Health and Safety Executive can be doing their jobs properly. Nor are their responsibilities sufficiently clearly defined, or Mrs Neilson would at least have received compensation.

The nuclear power industry has benefited from intense scrutiny because of the fear that laxity could endanger the public. Industrial radiographers have largely escaped notice because they are endangering mainly themselves - although there was a case in the United States of irradiated metal turning up in scrap used to make tables. They are, however, entitled to the same protection as other industrial workers.

The belated disclosure of Mr Neilson's death is another reminder that the Government's enthusiasm for deregulation needs monitoring as closely as industrial safety. Given the death and injury rate in industry, plans to cut funding of the Health and Safety Executive look more irresponsible than ever.