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HSE takes action against Border Agency for airport explosion risk

07 January 2013

The UK Border Agency (UKBA) has been censured over safety failings that could have caused an explosion at Robin Hood airport in Finningley, South Yorkshire. Ten people were present and other aircraft nearby when UKBA staff unsafely examined a plane's munitions cargo - despite being warned not to by the pilot.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) on December 19 2012 completed its Crown Censure procedure of UKBA following its investigation into the incident on 10 November 2009.

A flight carrying anti-tank ammunition had landed at the airport and UKBA workers were told by their manager to carry out checks on the load. The plane was taken to a separate part of the site because of the hazardous cargo.

The aircraft pilot warned UKBA staff that the crates of ammunition were explosive and should not be examined. Despite this warning, they opened the crates and partially removed some of the explosive devices from their protective packaging while ten people were there.

This entailed removing three separate layers of packaging, including opening the protective tubing and exposing live rounds of anti-tank ammunition. There were five crates, each containing five rounds.

The HSE investigation found that UKBA had failed to carry out a suitable risk assessment to enable them to complete the checks safely. Had they done so, they would have recognised several problems.

There was a significant risk that the ammunition could detonate if it was dropped which could have detonated the whole cargo. As a result, members of the public, airport workers and nearby aircraft were all put at risk on that day.

Mr Paul Darling, Corporate Director, Resources and Organisational Development, of the UK Borders Agency attended the Crown Censure meeting on 19 December 2012 at the HSE premises in Sheffield and accepted the findings on behalf of UKBA.

By accepting the censure, UKBA has formally acknowledged there were health and safety failings.

UKBA cannot face prosecution from HSE in the same way as non-Government bodies. Crown Censures are agreed procedures applicable to Crown employers in lieu of HSE criminal proceedings.

David Snowball, the HSE Director for Northern England, who chaired the Crown Censure meeting, said:

"Our investigation into the details of the cargo verification by UKBA staff at Robin Hood Doncaster Sheffield airport found that the failings by the Agency were serious enough to warrant this course of action.

"The evidence brought to light by the HSE investigation would be sufficient to provide a realistic prospect of conviction of UKBA in civilian courts. This Crown Censure is the maximum enforcement action that HSE can take and should serve to illustrate how seriously we take the failings we identified."

The Crown Censure proceedings relate to UKBA's discharge of its duties as an employer, under Sections 2 and 3 of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974.

A Crown Censure is the maximum sanction for a government body that HSE can bring. There is no financial penalty associated with Crown Censure, but once accepted is an official record of a failing to meet the standards set out in law.

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