‘Rampant bullying’: Sellafield’s workplace culture deemed ‘a recipe for disaster’

Whistleblowers have described a potentially dangerous workplace culture of harassment and abuse at Sellafield, which called the bomb squad after a chemical incident last year.

Profound concerns have been expressed about Sellafield's workplace culture. Photograph: Construction Photography/Avalon/Getty Images Profound concerns have been expressed about Sellafield's workplace culture. Photograph: Construction Photography/Avalon/Getty Images

A letter expressing concerns about racist behaviour, leaked to the BBC, said: “We fear that if we complain, we could be branded a troublemaker and mark ourselves out to be got rid of. It is exhausting that we must be wary of those who we spend most of our waking hours with,” the letter said.

Senior manager Karl Connor, who is bringing a disability discrimination case against site operator Sellafield Ltd, told the BBC he resigned in January due to a breakdown induced by bullying.

“If you want to earn a good wage and live in that part of the world, then you have to work at Sellafield or in one of the supply chain companies. The best thing for most people is not to rock the boat, to keep their heads down and just put up with it,” he told the broadcaster.

Misogynist behaviour has also been alleged in graphic detail at the site, reports the BBC. Sellafield is thought to host the largest store of plutonium in the world.

A serving member of staff told the BBC that there had been “a steady deterioration in standards in my career. There are things that are not right but if you complain about it, nothing ever happens."

A report published by the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) in December explains why such reluctance to express concerns about workplace behaviour can demonstrate a serious risk to nuclear safety.

“The role of organisational culture in maintaining nuclear safety is well established: reports of investigations into notable events such as Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Davis Besse and Fukushima provide compelling evidence of the importance of establishing an effective nuclear safety culture. Much academic and business research over the past 40 years has also established the critical role of organisational culture in achieving good safety outcomes,” it states.

Guidance from the World Association of Nuclear Operators says that a “questioning attitude” is a key safety principle, to “avoid complacency and continuously challenge existing conditions, assumptions, anomalies and activities to identify discrepancies that might result in errors or inappropriate actions.” It also says that a “respectful working environment” with individuals encouraged to voice concerns, is a vital aspect for the management of nuclear sites.

A Sellafield Ltd spokesperson said: “There is no place for bullying and harassment at Sellafield. We do not tolerate it and where we find it, we take action. We are working hard to improve our processes so employees can have confidence that when issues are raised, they are dealt with.

“We accept we have more work to do in this area but we remain as committed as ever to eradicating unacceptable behaviour from our workplace,” he added.

A statement from the ONR said it was “naturally concerned to hear these claims, particularly any suggestion that staff have been subjected to racist abuse of any kind” and that its door was open to any concerns about safety.

“As a regulator, if we had any concerns or evidence that bullying and harassment was impacting safety at the site, we would take robust action to ensure this is addressed as a matter of urgency,” though had found that no issues have led to unsafe activities at the site.

However, “There have been numerous, serious incidents at the Sellafield site in the past 18 months. I believe the combination of a toxic culture and toxic materials poses a serious risk to our public safety,” said Alison McDermott, a senior consultant who was hired to work on diversity and equality at Sellafield in 2017. She described the situation as “a recipe for disaster”.

“When I started working there, it quickly became apparent there was rampant bullying in the organisation," she wrote on Twitter last week. “I was instantly dismissed by Sellafield after speaking out about serious issues. I raised my concerns to the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, Sellafield’s governing body, who did nothing,” she added.

McDermott is now pursuing a whistleblowing and victimisation case, due to be heard by the Employment Tribunal in June, while crowdfunding her costs.

Sue Ferns, deputy general secretary for the union Prospect said: “These are disturbing reports. No-one should be subject to racism or discrimination at work. Prospect and other unions will be addressing these reports with the employer as a matter of priority.

“Employers need to work with trade unions to ensure that leadership on workplace culture comes from all levels of the organisation, and to embed good practice as part of everyday activity.  At a time when Black Lives Matter has focused attention on endemic racism, all organisations need to challenge themselves to ensure appropriate behavioural standards.”

Sellafield Ltd, which is state-owned, was obliged to report two serious incidents to the ONR last year.

In August, a container of an organic peroxide in the Magnox Reprocessing Facility was found to have separated into two layers, leaving it in a potentially explosive condition. However, “ONR judges that there were no potential nuclear safety consequences should there have been an inadvertent detonation, given the amount of chemical present coupled with the protection afforded” by the chemical vault.

Nevertheless, the Army’s 33 Engineer Regiment – its explosives disposal team – was brought in to respond to the situation. “Sellafield Ltd is currently implementing improvements to its arrangements for managing waste chemicals across the site, including implementing a plan for disposal of problematic wastes,” said the regulator.

The following month, there was “a small leak” of uranyl nitrate from an overhead pipe, though it did not escape into surface water drains and was “of low radiological consequence”, it added. The incident was attributed to internal corrosion.

A contractor was handed an improvement notice by the ONR last year after a worker almost struck a live power cable.

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