Last summer, Los Alamos National Laboratory Director Pete Nanos suspended operations because he confessed little confidence the lab had sufficiently identified and addressed safety risks and potential vulnerabilities. Critics argued that the laboratory's safety record was good enough and questioned Nanos's decision.

Now the health, safety and radiation-protection division leader at Los Alamos National Laboratory has weighed in with his opinion, written in the Santa Fe New Mexican. "The laboratory's safety record is not good enough," says Lee McAtee.

"Our safety record is not too bad by most comparisons but, at the same time, we would be hard pressed to claim that it is best in class. The bottom line is clear: The laboratory collectively, and all employees individually, must redouble our efforts to embrace a safety mindset, reduce safety incidents and strive for a level of best-in-class safety record that is immune to debate," he says.

At the end of 2003, the Department of Energy-wide average recordable injury rate was 1.8 cases per 100 full-time employees, compared to Los Alamos's current rate of 2.5, says McAtee. By comparison, Brookhaven National Laboratory and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory had injury rates of 1.5 and 1.2, respectively.

In reality, Los Alamos probably performs slightly better than average, because it includes in its rates those of subcontractors, which tend to have higher injury rates due to the nature of their work, he explained

But the lab's safety performance is far from best in class, the safety chief believes.

As long as the injury rate remains above zero, there's room for improvement, and it's time well spent to identify and address risks and potential vulnerabilities, he says.

Plus, as a nuclear laboratory, Los Alamos bears an "enormous public trust," says McAtee. "Society tends to tolerate accidents resulting from familiar causes such as construction or driving; at the same time, society is intolerant of accidents at a place such as Los Alamos, where the hazards are unfamiliar and potentially catastrophic. The public holds Los Alamos to a higher standard of safety and it's our job to meet that standard."

The lab's top safety officer finds recent statistical trends troubling. The laboratory's injury rate improved dramatically between 1996 (6.0 injury rate) and 2001 (1.5 injury rate), but over the past few years the rate of improvement "has not just stagnated but actually reversed," he notes.

"This stagnation and decline is inconsistent with the continuing performance improvement achieved by both private industry and the DOE throughout the same time period. A hallmark of all best-in-class companies is continual improvement in the safety arena, which means pushing beyond the status quo to eliminate all accidents," says McAtee.

Plus, since the beginning of 2003, the lab has had several serious injuries and/or near misses. Two of these events permanently maimed the workers involved and four could have been lethal. "This history of serious injury and/or near-miss events is not indicative of best-in-class safety performance," says the safety boss.

"Slightly better than average is not good enough for an institution bearing a huge public trust and shouldering a vital national-security mission. We content ourselves with nothing less than best-in-class scientific research. Why would we settle for anything less in safety when the stakes — the health and lives of our employees — matter even more?"