An airport security contractor is appealing a federal order that baggage x-ray machines pose a workplace health hazard. The labour department upheld a complaint by two Nova Scotia security agents.
“When the bins are going in and out, the lead curtains are open at both ends when the x-ray is on,” Alicia Doyle, an employee with Securitas Transport Security Ltd., wrote in a complaint under the Canada Labour Code. Securitas is a private company that contracts screening services for the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority at airports nationwide.
Doyle and a fellow employee at Halifax International Airport said they were routinely exposed to unsafe levels of radiation while feeding luggage through x-ray machines. “I feel 100 percent the x-rays are unsafe,” wrote the second Securitas staffer. “The bigger bags will hold open both curtains and when one bag is being x-rayed, the next is preventing the curtains from closing.”
Records at the federal Occupational Health & Safety Tribunal indicated the labour department in a September 2 directive told contractors that unsafe use of x-rays “constituted a danger based on the investigation” of the two Nova Scotians’ complaints.
“Employees may be exposed to radiation when the lead curtain of the Rapiscan Airport Security Baggage X-Ray Machine is prevented from closing due to the passenger bins being spaced less than 12 inches apart, or the size of the bags impedes the closing of the curtain,” wrote a department investigator. Securitas was ordered to change its procedures by September 8.
The company is appealing the order to the Tribunal. The Security Authority is an intervenor in the case. The Authority in a submission said the directive “could impact the delivery of CATSA’s security screening mandate at Halifax and other Canadian airports.”
The two screeners who filed the Labour Code complaint could not be reached for comment. The Authority in an X-Ray Safety Awareness Handbook For Baggage X-Ray Machine Operators said risks of exposure to radiation are minimal, but that operators must be careful to close lead curtains when running luggage through scanners.
“The entrance and exit to the machine are shielded by curtains which can move around,” said the Handbook. “As a result, these areas will likely have the highest radiation levels found around the machine. The distance principle of radiation protection can be put into action by avoiding close contact with these areas as much as possible and never reaching past these curtains into the machine while x-rays are being produced.”
The Handbook advised employees that “no amount of shielding can prevent 100 percent of the x-rays from escaping”, but said risks were minor. “There is more of a chance of dying in an accident on the road or at home,” wrote staff.
By Mark Bourrie