Hanford tank farm contractor recognized for safety

Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldJune 26, 2014 

Work underway at the Hanford tank farms.

HERALD FILE

The Department of Energy has recognized Washington River Protection Solutions, the Hanford tank farm contractor, with DOE's Voluntary Protection Program Star for outstanding occupational safety and health programs.

The recognition comes as 38 workers have received medical evaluations after smelling suspicious odors or developing symptoms consistent with exposure to chemical vapors from tank waste since March. All were cleared to return to work, but workers are concerned that chemical exposure could lead to serious, long-term health problems.

The safety star award is based on the results of an assessment done in December, with Washington River Protection Solutions notified of results in May, said John Britton, a spokesman for the contractor.

The safety star flags that will be flown at the tank farms are being awarded in safety meetings at Washington River Protection Solutions this week.

The assessment found that the contractor's safety performance exceeds the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and DOE standards, Tom Fletcher, DOE assistant manager of the Hanford tank farms, said in a statement.

Washington River Protection Solutions had been working toward a safety star award for more than five years, Britton said.

The award is driven by employees, and companies are rated on interviews with employees and observations of employees at work during the assessment, Britton said. The rating also considers how involved managers are with employees.

"Our Employee Accident Prevention Councils, the Hanford Atomic Metal Trades Council safety representatives and our safety and health staff work cooperatively to address work force issues and encourage continuous improvement," said Dave Olson, Washington River Protection Solutions president.

The DOE safety program assessment also considers the ability to recognize hazards and develop means to mitigate them.

"We know we have got a chemical vapor problem and are dealing with it," Britton said. "We are making improvements."

There have been no employee exposures confirmed to be above industry-based occupational limits, he said. But Washington River Protection Solutions recognizes that some people are more sensitive to chemical vapors than others, he said.

Washington River Protection Solutions has arranged for the Savannah River National Laboratory to conduct an assessment of what improvements it could make to better protect workers from chemical vapors.

The tank farm contractor has increased requirements for respiratory protection, requiring at least half-face respirators for work in areas where waste is being disturbed, which may increase vapors, or where vapors have previously been detected.

Workers can voluntarily upgrade to full-face or supplied air respirators, and the contractor is working to make the process of upgrading easier for workers.

Engineers are considering better controls such as remote stacks to release vapors farther away from workers, and better respiratory protection devices are being investigated, Britton said.

Tank farms are evacuated and workers moved upwind if one person develops symptoms associated with vapors, such as coughing, headache and shortness of breath, or if two workers smell a suspicious odor. Vapors often smell of the ammonia that may be present in them.

However, worker advocacy group Hanford Challenge wants workers to be required to always use supplied air respiratory protection when tank waste is being disturbed or atmospheric conditions make vapor releases more likely

It wants chemical scrubbers to be required to remove the chemicals from the vapors before workers breathe in the fumes. And it wants a more fair and accessible system to compensate workers for vapor exposure.

Hanford Challenge says chemical vapors that emit periodically but unpredictably from the head spaces of tanks are, for all practical purposes, impossible to quantify or qualify.

The head spaces in the tanks where vapors collect and then are vented into the atmosphere can contain more than 1,000 chemicals.

w Annette Cary: 509-582-1533; acary@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @HanfordNews

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