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Workers at the Sellafield nuclear site have reported a “toxic culture” of bullying, sexual harassment, and drug use that could potentially compromise safety.

Several employees at Sellafield have alleged that a “toxic culture” of bullying, sexual harassment, and drug use could jeopardize the safety of Europe’s most dangerous nuclear facility.

According to numerous present and past workers, the Cumbrian facility, which serves as a massive disposal site for nuclear waste, has a deeply ingrained toxic work environment. Employees have reported experiencing bullying, harassment, and humiliation, with some even driven to contemplate suicide.

The human resources department of the website has been accused of using a “bully, break, bribe” method when addressing employees who express concerns about their coworkers and the safety of the site.

Whistleblowers are cautioning about the hazardous effects of a toxic environment on the safety and security of Europe’s largest nuclear waste facility. This facility contains decades worth of radioactive materials. The information has come to light through Nuclear Leaks, a year-long investigation by The Guardian, which delves into issues such as cyber attacks, radioactive pollution, and a toxic work environment at the 6 sq km (2 sq mile) location.

Alison McDermott, a consultant who reported being fired in 2018 for speaking out about the culture of sexual harassment at Sellafield, has raised concerns about the potential for accidents, errors, as well as acts of terrorism and sabotage in such an environment.

She stated that those risks are much more probable to occur when working in a toxic and dysfunctional environment.

The large government-funded facility has a workforce of 11,000 employees responsible for ensuring the safety of deteriorating structures that house nuclear waste. It is a major employer in the north-west region and has employed multiple generations of family members.

The inquiry into Sellafield has revealed:

  • Multiple deaths by suicide that seem to be connected to the stress of working at the location.

  • A former employee, who was once young, stated that he was bullied to such an extent that he had feelings of wanting to end his life. This bullying was a result of constant ridicule about his sexual experience.

  • Employees who have reported experiencing or witnessing incidents of sexual assault.

  • Employees who are suspected of frequently bringing cocaine onto the premises and storing clean urine samples in case of surprise drug screenings.

In a 2020 publication by the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR), which oversees the facility, it was noted that a negative work environment was a contributing factor to major nuclear incidents, such as Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011.

According to the report, the significance of having a strong organizational culture in ensuring nuclear safety has been widely acknowledged. Investigations into significant incidents like Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Davis-Besse, and Fukushima have shown the crucial role of establishing a successful nuclear safety culture.

Sellafield is a major employer in the west Cumbria area, along with BAE Systems, which builds nuclear submarines in nearby Barrow-in-Furness. The salaries at these companies are typically higher than the regional average. Many families have relied on employment at Sellafield for multiple generations, and it can be challenging for those who leave due to raising concerns to find alternative employment.

Sellafield nuclear site with the town of Seascale in the foreground

There have been multiple instances of suicide connected to the stress of working at the location in the past few years.

According to individuals familiar with the medical services on site, there has been a significantly elevated amount of severe episodes of mental illness, as well as instances of suicide and suicide attempts, among the workforce.

The suicide rate in the wider Cumbria area is 50% higher than the average rate in England. Although there is no official data on the number of suicides specifically related to the Sellafield site, a source stated that the rate at Sellafield is even higher. Sellafield has not confirmed whether they keep records of employee suicides.

According to a source with medical expertise at the site, Sellafield and its surrounding area should be viewed similarly to an army base and its corresponding town. The high pressure environment of Sellafield can lead to an increased risk of suicide or severe mental health issues, as work-related problems also affect the social dynamics in this community. Many individuals may feel trapped and unable to escape from these conditions.

The employees at Sellafield face a higher risk of suicide, and although the numbers are not significant enough for statistical evaluation, they indicate a disproportionate issue with suicide and mental health within the worker population.

Some present and past employees have expressed feeling trapped in a “fishbowl” where they are unable to escape the job site and its rural surroundings after their work day ends.

There are also worries about allegations of mistreatment. An individual who started working at a young age for a contractor on the premises has shared how coworkers regularly “harassed me to uncover my greatest insecurities”. In a documented statement, viewed by the Guardian, the young worker stated that he was referred to as a “virgin”, a “homosexual”, and a “coward” and was jokingly dubbed “top shagger” as coworkers speculated about his sexual history.

“I experienced a severe decrease in my self-confidence and they caused me to feel unworthy of being a human being. I was consumed with thoughts of wanting to end my life,” he expressed. “It has been almost four years now and I am still far from fully recovering physically and mentally.”

He claimed that his coworkers often brought cocaine onto the premises and that some would even store urine samples in case of a drug test.

Many other sources on the site have raised concerns about the efficiency of the drug testing system in place.

In the previous year, it was discovered that seven employees had tested positive for drugs out of a total of 741 workers who underwent random testing from November 2021 to November 2022.

There are also worries regarding accusations of discriminatory, sexist, and concerning actions at Sellafield. Towards the end of 2020, a group of employees from ethnic minority backgrounds sent a letter to the company’s board, outlining 27 reported incidents of racism.

According to a reliable source from the industry, there are a group of long-term Sellafield employees who are resistant to change and are referred to as “We Bees”, which is short for “we will still be here when you have left.”

An ex-employee stated that there is no turnover among the staff and it is common to find three generations of the same family working on the premises. The job is seen as a lifelong commitment and the community is very closed off. Trying to shift this mindset is extremely tough and presents many challenges.

According to various sources, the human resources department’s reaction to those who spoke out was described as “bully, break, bribe”. Sellafield declined to comment on the accusation.

According to a report commissioned by the NDA in 2019 and reviewed by the Guardian, an employee stated: “I perceive that I am penalized by HR when I speak out about unethical conduct.”

Alison McDermott

An experienced HR consultant named McDermott was hired to analyze the culture at Sellafield and provide suggestions. However, she claims to have been terminated after suggesting that an investigation should take place regarding allegations of sexual harassment and a subsequent cover-up. McDermott is currently waiting for a ruling from the court of appeal following a prolonged legal dispute with Sellafield.

According to McDermott, the severity of the bullying and harassment experienced by employees was extremely alarming and surpassed expectations. It was evident that there was a widespread issue with bullying and harassment at Sellafield.

An equality consultant named McDermott has communicated with many past and present employees both before and after her termination in 2018. She expressed concerns about an employee’s accusations of sexual harassment and the alleged attempt to cover it up at Sellafield.

According to employees, due to the lack of safety in speaking out, they have adapted a survival mindset of keeping their heads down and avoiding confrontation. However, this mentality is not desirable in a nuclear plant as even a single mistake could lead to a series of disastrous events, as seen in the case of Chornobyl.

Trust is essential for safety in any organization. If employees are demoralized, afraid to speak up, or facing mistreatment, it can directly affect safety.

The dangers at Sellafield are not limited to the potential for accidents or errors, which could have grave consequences. There are also significant risks of terrorism or intentional sabotage. These risks are even greater in a toxic and dysfunctional work environment.

She stated: “The legal dispute has resulted in financial strain and affected my well-being.”

According to a report from the Safecall whistleblowing hotline in 2018, a manager has been accused of sexually harassing female employees for an extended period of time. The employee who reported this claims that the issue has been concealed and no action has been taken.

According to a request for information, Sellafield reported that they have used £724,481.82 over the course of five years to defend cases related to employment.

A representative from Sellafield stated that bullying and harassment are not acceptable at our company. We have a zero-tolerance policy and will take appropriate measures if such behavior is discovered. We encourage anyone with knowledge of employee misconduct to come forward so that we can conduct a thorough investigation.

We are dedicated to ensuring that all of our employees are treated with respect, included, and able to work at their highest potential.

In 2018, a survey was conducted which highlighted concerns about bullying and harassment among our workforce. As a company, we make it a priority to regularly gather the opinions of our employees.

We addressed the problem by actively informing our employees and implementing a company-wide improvement plan. Our efforts are ongoing and we are dedicated to eliminating any unacceptable behavior from our workplace.

“Beginning in 2018, we have made numerous enhancements such as allocating more resources towards mediation, counseling, and our confidential employee assistance hotline. We also offer a variety of employee-led networks that offer peer support and advocate for positive changes and improvements.”

Sellafield declined to comment on McDermott’s case. It has previously said that her claims are “entirely without substance” and noted that an appeal against the findings of her employment tribunal upheld its original ruling.

A representative from the ONR stated that Sellafield is the most closely monitored nuclear facility in the UK, with hundreds of inspections and interactions taking place annually.

“We have not found any indications that cultural matters have led to hazardous actions on the premises. Nevertheless, we are vigilant and will continue to closely monitor Sellafield to ensure that safety and security remain their top priorities, unaffected by any factors such as internal culture and behaviors.”

Claire Coutinho, the secretary of state for energy security and net zero, wrote to the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority which owns Sellafield on Tuesday after the Guardian’s investigation into the site. She requested a “urgent” update on efforts to fix any concerns about its workplace culture.

Source: theguardian.com