The Hanford tank farm contractor and union leadership have agreed to ease respiratory restrictions around some of the nuclear reservation’s stored waste for the second time.
In July 2016, the Hanford Atomic Metal Trades Council issued a stop-work order in the tank farms unless workers were wearing supplied air respirators. HAMTC is an umbrella group for 15 Hanford unions.
Officials were concerned that breathing in chemical vapors associated with waste held in underground tanks could seriously damage workers’ neurological or respiratory health.
Last week, the supplied-air respirator restriction was partially lifted for the first time since HAMTC leadership changed earlier this year.
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HAMTC and the Department of Energy’s tank farm contractor, Washington River Protection Solutions, agreed to allow use of full-face, air-purifying respirators in the SY Tank Farm as an alternative to the supplied air respirators that require workers to carry a 30-pound oxygen tank. SY is one of Hanford’s six double shell tank farms.
Summer 2014 supplied air respirators required at tanks venting into the atmosphere
Summer 2016 supplied air respirators also required at most tanks with exhausters
Mark Lindholm, president of the tank farm contractor, and Jeff McDaniel, HAMTC president, sent a joint message to tank farm workers at the end of the last work week.
Lindholm and Dave Molnaa, the former HAMTC president, reached similar agreement about the AP Tank Farm, also a double shell tank farm, in March.
The reduced tank requirements are in line with an August 2016 agreement reached by the tank farm contractor and HAMTC to look at easing requirements tank-farm-by-tank-farm based on data collected on tests of how well cartridges in the air-purifying respirators capture chemicals.
The cartridges were tested under extreme conditions in areas where workers would not be breathing in chemical vapors, such as in the head space of tanks or as the vapors come out of ventilation stacks.
The test results were analyzed by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and by Stoneturn Consultants, which was picked by HAMTC to perform an independent review.
50 percent estimated increased time to do work while wearing supplied air respirators
Chemical vapors are more likely to be released when waste in one of Hanford’s underground tanks is disturbed. The 56 million gallons of waste held in the underground tanks is left from the past production at Hanford of plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program.
No work that would disturb waste is planned in the SY Tank Farm. The tanks at the farm are among those at Hanford that have exhausters rather than venting to the atmosphere.
Only certain tasks — possibly routine monitoring or safety checks — will be done in the tank farm with workers wearing the air-purifying respirators. More protective supplied air respirators still could be required for some work.
As is Hanford policy, any worker not comfortable with the less-restrictive respirators will be allowed to use a supplied air respirator unless it would pose additional safety hazards.
No worker has reported a possible exposure to chemical vapors while wearing the supplied air respirators, but the system is cumbersome and heavy. Visibility is limited and workers are more prone to strains and sprains.
The supplied air respirators also increase the time required to perform tasks by about 50 percent, DOE has said.