Study finds continued safety culture problem at Hanford

Tri-City HeraldJune 24, 2014 

The nuclear waste vitrification plant at Hanford.


— A follow-up assessment of the safety culture at the Hanford vitrification plant found no significant improvement in employee perceptions despite two years of work to address issues.

The study was conducted by the Department of Energy Office of Independent Enterprise Assessments, a new office performing the former duties of the DOE Office of Health, Safety and Security since May.

The former office released results of the first study in January 2012, then did more surveys and interviews early this year to assess the success of work by DOE and Bechtel National, the vit plant contractor, to improve the safety culture.

Most of the concern focuses on the future safe and efficient operation of the Hanford vitrification plant, being built and engineered to treat radioactive waste, rather than the safety practices on the construction site.

Many new initiatives have been implemented and programs revised, said Glenn Podonsky, director of the Office of Independent Enterprise Assessments, in a memo.

"However, many of the efforts to address improvements in safety culture are at the level of artifacts and claimed values, such as documented procedures and policies," Podonsky said. "While these efforts are important, the lack of significant measurable change in employee perceptions indicates that they are insufficient to internalize the beliefs and values necessary to effectively change culture."

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said he had warned that retaliation against whistleblowers would make employees less likely to come forward with legitimate health and safety concerns and that the report confirms those fears.

Safety culture became an issue in summer 2010 after Walter Tamosaitis, the former research and technology manager at the plant, took his concerns to the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board.

"This survey shows that a shockingly high number of DOE's own employees working on the (vitrification) plant at Hanford -- 70 percent -- feel unable to freely speak out about safety problems there, despite repeated promises to improve its safety culture," Wyden said.

The assessment report found that DOE employees working on the vit plant had more negative views in the follow-up survey than the original survey regarding attention to safety, coordination of work and problem identification and resolution.

There is a perception that DOE oversight functions for the vit plant are not independent and that the philosophy of the new senior management team, which increases collaboration with Bechtel, has created confusion, the report said.

Improvements were needed at Bechtel, but the volume of the initiatives launched created a sense of confused priorities, the report said. In addition, a lack of interaction and coordination of work among groups makes the effectiveness of many initiatives uncertain, the report said.

While perceptions at the vit plant have not change much in the two years since the last assessment, an increased level of frustration was found below the management level by workers who want the vit plant project to succeed. Construction has slowed in the last two years.

"The lack of progress has been demoralizing," the report said. "This frustration has implications for future performance."

Among survey results included in the report, only slightly more than 50 percent of DOE employees agreed that management wants concerns reported and only 40 percent believed that constructive criticism is encouraged.

About 58 percent of Bechtel employees and about 62 percent of the survey respondents at URS, the primary subcontractor at the plant, said they could approach the management team with concerns. Only 46 percent of Bechtel and URS employees believed constructive criticism is encouraged.

Wyden said that the fact that so many DOE employees were concerned about speaking up indicates that DOE is a big part of the problem.

"DOE headquarters must take immediate steps to truly assure all project employees that they will not be punished for raising legitimate safety concerns," Wyden said.

DOE plans to build on the steps taken to date, said Kevin Smith, manager of the DOE Office of River Protection, or ORP.

"We recognize that a concerted effort to change an organization's safety culture, such as the effort under way at ORP, takes time and continued management focus to realize results," he said.

Peggy McCullough, Bechtel project director, told employees in a memo that Bechtel would continue to reinforce expectations for demonstrating a questioning attitude and for identification and resolution of issues.

"I am confident our continuing commitment to a strong nuclear safety and quality culture will ensure we are designing and building a safe (vit plant) with bulletproof quality," she said.

The report made several recommendations for improvement, including providing more experienced managers for Bechtel engineering and for DOE.

Managers at all levels in DOE need to be more engaged in activities to drive safety culture change, showing staff that efforts are sincere, the report said.

Bechtel should consider implementing the same model used for its Safety Conscious Work Environment, which was widely recognized as successful across the company, for other initiatives. The report also said that the Bechtel organization at Hanford needs to better understand how Bechtel's corporate organization is aligned with vitrification plant goals.

DOE officials at headquarters and at Hanford are reviewing the recommendations made in the assessment to determine additional actions that should be taken, Smith said.

Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz has directed the Office of Independent Enterprise Assessments to provide an update on progress in one year.

-- Annette Cary: 509-582-1533;; Twitter: @HanfordNews

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