The Department of Energy is making improvements to its Hanford Employee Concerns Programs, which have been criticized over the past year.
The changes are driven by a review the Hanford DOE Richland Operations Office requested a year ago from the DOE Office of Health, Safety and Security, said Matt McCormick, manager of the Richland Operations Office. The request was routine, based on the fact that two DOE programs had been merged and the Richland Operations program had not been reviewed since 2006, he said.
But before the review was done, questions were raised about the safety culture of the Hanford vitrification plant, including the effectiveness of Employee Concerns Programs.
"Both the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB) and the DOE Office of Health, Safety and Security (HSS) have issued reports that include findings critical of the employee concerns functions at both the DOE and contractor levels," said the Hanford Advisory Board in a letter sent to DOE on Friday.
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The HSS safety culture report, which focused on the vitrification plant, said some workers fear retaliation if they use the Employee Concerns Program. They say they believe they might not remain anonymous and that information could be shared without their permission, according to a section of the report quoted in the advisory board letter.
"It is clear from these reports there is a widespread dissatisfaction with both the DOE and the contractor Employee Concerns Programs, and both programs suffer from a lack of trust amongst a significant portion of the work force," the advisory board said.
Without trustworthy and effective ways to raise issues at Hanford, employees may remain silent or find outside avenues to raise issues, the board said.
However, the board noted that DOE is beginning to address issues. Just days before the advisory board letter was sent, McCormick and Scott Samuelson, the manager of the DOE Hanford Office of River Protection, sent a memo to all Hanford employees saying improvements would be made.
The HSS review requested last summer was delayed as it focused on safety culture issues at the vitrification plant. But HSS conducted the requested review last month, looking at DOE and Hanford contractor Employee Concerns Programs, except for the contractor program at the vitrification plant which was covered in the safety culture investigation.
Although the report on the May review still is being written, DOE knows enough about the findings to focus on areas of improvement identified by the review, McCormick said. It also brought in industry experts to look beyond whether Employee Concerns Programs comply with requirements to consider how workers are treated in the programs.
Overall, Hanford has a good program that meets requirements, McCormick said. But there are five areas, which were listed in the memo, where improvements will be made, he said.
The programs need to improve confidentiality during the investigation if the worker requests it, McCormick said.
Service to the employee will be improved in the programs, including capturing the concern accurately, investigating it thoroughly and communicating frequently with the employee during the investigation, he said. For instance, before a final report is written, a draft could be shown to the employee to get feedback.
The Employee Concerns Programs will do a better job of getting the word out about what the program offers and the specific steps workers can take to file a concern, McCormick said. That will include giving presentations at meetings already being held for groups of workers.
DOE heard that some workers believe that investigations are not independent. To increase independence, the Employee Concerns Programs will rely more on technical experts not directly involved in the issues during investigations.
In addition, DOE will improve the quality of Employee Concerns Program work products, McCormick said. That could include better explaining how the investigation reached a conclusion and whether the concern was substantiated.
"We want you to know that not only do you have the right, but it is also your obligation to raise safety issues that you are aware of to your supervisor or manager, or to anyone else in the management team," the memo said. "It is our expectation that issues will be taken seriously, acted upon and resolved in a timely manner.
The Hanford Advisory Board had additional recommendations for improvements.
The Office of River Protection Employee Concerns Program has been merged with the Richland Operations Office, but some board members questioned how well that was working.
DOE should reconsider that decision because the Office of River Protection is better able to address the particular concerns raised by its employees at the Hanford tank farms, vitrification plant and 222-S Laboratory, the board said.
It also recommended that DOE and its contractors include more nonmanagement employees in developing employee concerns policies, including policies addressing how workers are protected if they file a concern.
The Employee Concerns Programs need to rigorously investigate all employee allegations of reprisal for raising a concern, the board said.
"Any finding by the Employee Concerns Program of reprisal or discrimination against an employee for raising an issue should be acted upon by the agency in a manner that provides redress to the employee and accountability to the contractor personnel responsible for the reprisal," the board said.