Abe Garza was in perfect health before he began working at Hanford more than three decades ago, his wife said at a public hearing Thursday before the Washington State House Labor and Workplace Standards Committee.
But after starting work, he began getting nosebleeds and, despite good dental care, started losing his teeth in his early 30s.
In the past seven years, he has been hospitalized for breathing issues four times, she said. He has nerve damage in his hands and feet, and has a diagnosis of a brain disorder, toxic encephalopathy, that can be caused by exposure to chemicals, including heavy metals.
Garza and his wife believe his illnesses are caused by exposure to chemicals at Hanford.
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But his claims for compensation have been denied by the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries.
House Bill 1723, proposed by state Rep. Larry Haler, R-Richland, would make it much easier for Hanford workers to get L&I claims approved.
Instead of workers having to prove that a condition was caused by a specific exposure, many conditions would be automatically assumed to be caused by working as little as one eight-hour shift at the Hanford nuclear reservation.
Proving a claim can be impossible when even the Department of Energy does not know what chemicals Hanford workers are exposed to, said workers and former workers who testified at the hearing.
Everything I do is now trying to figure out how to deal with these problems I developed from working at the tank farms.
Seth Ellingsworth, former Hanford worker
“Instead of getting the care and treatment they deserve, they have to battle their way through a worker compensation system that consistently fails them,” said Tom Carpenter, executive director of Hanford Challenge, a public watchdog group.
State compensation claims by Hanford workers are denied at five times the rate of the claims of workers for other self-insured employers, he said.
A systemic pattern of denials “has had the effect of destroying the health and lives of hundreds of workers and their families at Hanford,” said Jeff Johnson, president of the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO. “It is hard not to conclude that at play here is a casual indifference to the lives of these workers and a clear violation of the central tenant of our workers compensation law, which is to provide sure and certain relief to injured workers.”
The Department of Energy is self-insured for worker compensation claims and contracts with a third-party administrator, Penser North America. DOE pays medical expenses and a portion of wages lost while a worker recovers from a workplace injury or occupational disease if the state approves the claim.
Seth Ellingsworth, 35, a former Hanford worker, said breathing in chemical vapors detectable by a smell of onions and body odors, was routine during his seven years at the tank farms. The vapors are associated with waste stored in underground tanks.
After an exposure to the vapors in August 2015, he became not only too sick to work, but also too sick to participate in family activities, he told the House committee members. His family goes on vacation without him because he cannot walk far and cannot tolerate the smell of smoke or perfume in crowds.
It would cover any person who has spent eight hours on a site that, as you heard, is half the size of Rhode Island. … That eight hours entitles one to a presumption of coverage for life.
Kriss Tefft, executive director of the Washington Self-Insurers Association
He went with his children to buy fireworks for the Fourth of July, but sat inside while they set them up because he couldn’t breathe if he was exposed to their smoke, he said.
He has been diagnosed with severe asthma, heavy metal in his blood and cognitive dysfunction, he said. He takes medications just to breathe, he said.
“Everything I do now is trying to figure out how to deal with these problems I developed from working at the tank farms,” Ellingsworth said.
Supporters of the bill said workers can be exposed to toxins, including radioactive materials, from a broad range of materials, including digging up waste and tearing down contaminated buildings.
The worker testimony was compelling, said those who opposed the bill.
As a native Tri-Citian, Kris Tefft, the executive director of the Washington Self-Insurers Association, said he is well aware of the hazards of working with Hanford and that workers have valid concerns.
But the proposed bill “is breathtaking in its scope and its inclusivity.”
“It would cover any person who has spent eight hours on a site that, as you heard, is half the size of Rhode Island,” Tefft said. “That eight hours entitles one to a presumption of coverage for life.”
Workers would be compensated for a broad list of illnesses covered as workplace conditions without trying to link the exposures to any particular class of workers or events, he said.
Covered illnesses include respiratory disease, neurological disease and a range of cancers, including leukemia and lung, thyroid, brain and colon cancer.
Heart problems also would be covered if they were experienced within 72 hours of exposure to chemical vapors or other toxic substances at the nuclear reservation.
Presumptions need to be based on medical evidence, said Bob Battles, government affairs director for the Association of Washington Business. The bill has not been vetted enough, he said.