Little progress appears to have been made to address the concerns of union employees about exposure to chemical vapors at the Hanford nuclear reservation, according to a new report.
The Department of Energy’s Office of Enterprise Assessments, which is independent of Hanford DOE offices, prepared the report to look at progress to address tank vapor concerns.
The Hanford tank farm contractor, Washington River Protection Solutions, has expended considerable time and effort to improve communication between management and workers.
But focus groups conducted with union workers indicated little improvement in addressing their concerns since a comprehensive review led by the Savannah River National Laboratory of tank vapor issues was released in 2014, the report said. The 2014 study was called the Tank Vapor Assessment Team, or TVAT report.
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“Many workers perceive that management does not acknowledge the health risk associated with such releases, and these perceptions contribute to erosion of trust between workers and management,” the report said.
Several workers said they were concerned about retaliation — from management and fellow workers — if they raised issues regarding tank vapors.
If workers smell suspicious odors or develop respiratory symptoms consistent with vapor exposure, they are told to leave the area and are offered medical checks. Nearly all workers are medically cleared to return to work the same day, but workers remain concerned about developing serious neurological or respiratory illnesses.
The findings, released in late November from a review by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, or NIOSH, were similar to findings in the new report.
The senior management at DOE and its tank farm contractor have demonstrated their commitment to address recommendations from TVAT by providing funding, effort and staff resources, the new Office of Enterprise Assessments report found.
To further compound the challenge, the current environment involving lawsuits, injunctions, press inquiries and extensive coverage, union stop-works, congressional oversight, and multiple internal and external reviews creates another barrier to open communication on key issues.
DOE Office of Enterprise Assessments report
But managing tank farm vapor incidents is a challenge because of longstanding, complex issues in vapor characterization and the identification and control of unpredictable vapor releases from unexpected places, the new report said.
“To further compound the challenge, the current environment involving lawsuits, injunctions, press inquiries and extensive coverage, union stop-works, congressional oversight, and multiple internal and external reviews creates another barrier to open communication on key issues,” the new report said.
The overall Hanford plan to improve tank vapor protections is appropriate, the new report found. It also found that progress had been made in a relatively short time to evaluate and use new technologies to better detect, characterize and report potential vapor exposures in close to real time.
The report concluded that most aspects of an industrial hygiene program to protect workers from chemicals were sound and improving.
But it also said that some workers have negative perceptions of the capabilities and training of recently hired industrial hygiene technicians. Even some of the new technicians had concerns.
Much of the workforce at the tank farms has more trust and confidence in radiological professionals — who protect them from radiation — than the industrial hygiene technicians who protect them from chemical vapors, the report said.
The Office of Enterprise Assessments made multiple recommendations, including to improve trust among workers on tank vapor issues.
We are also working with union representatives to find additional ways to protect workers, and we are improving transparency and communication with the Hanford workforce.
Mark Lindholm, president of Washington River Protection Solutions
“Reinforce and reassure workers that managers want and need to hear their ideas and input on tank farm vapor issues and that management will not tolerate any form of retaliation for raising concerns … either from peers or management,” the report recommended.
Workers should be encouraged and rewarded for participating in activities that allow their input on planning and implementing steps to address tank vapor issues.
Union members said in focus groups that there was no effective mechanism for them to provide ongoing input about tank vapor issues.
Mark Lindholm, president of Washington River Protection Solutions, told employees in a message Monday that the report is being evaluated.
“We are also working with union representatives to find additional ways to protect workers, and we are improving transparency and communication with the Hanford workforce,” his message said.