Hanford

Some Hanford workers think twice about raising vapor issues

An Office of Inspector General review concluded that Hanford workers generally felt free to discuss concerns about chemical vapors, but interviewed seven workers who expressed reservations.
An Office of Inspector General review concluded that Hanford workers generally felt free to discuss concerns about chemical vapors, but interviewed seven workers who expressed reservations. Courtesy DOE

Some Hanford workers said they had concerns about raising issues related to possible chemical vapor exposures during a review by the Department of Energy Office of Inspector General.

A report on the review, which looked at whether fear of retaliation was a problem and assessed the status of actions to address risks posed by chemical vapors, was made public Wednesday.

“Seven of the 52 workers we interviewed indicated that they had concerns about reporting, communicating, reprisal or fear of retaliation related to potential vapor exposures,” the report said.

Chemical vapors associated with Hanford nuclear reservation waste held in underground tanks has been blamed for symptoms such as shortness of breath and nosebleeds and may cause serious neurological and respiratory illnesses.

Reviewers were satisfied by the actions under way at Hanford to address risks posed by vapors and found them to be largely on schedule. But they said improved communication could help alleviate the continuing fear of retaliation by some workers and better inform workers about the status of protection improvements.

“In our view, improving these areas is critical to ensuring that actions taken to resolve the recommendations for improvement are transparent to members of the workforce and other interested parties,” the report said.

It is crucial that management improve its communication with workers so workers understand what had been proposed, studied, and decided, and why these proposals had not been implemented.

DOE Office of Inspector General report

Most workers felt they were free to express their concerns with management on vapor risk, were not discouraged from reporting suspected vapor exposures and had not experienced retaliation for reporting concerns, the report said.

Of the seven workers who felt differently, one had filed a formal complaint earlier this year over concerns related to retaliation.

Another worker “sort of” perceived a form of reprisal when management discussed the worker’s exposure with co-workers, which may have caused others to think twice about reporting vapor issues.

Other workers reported that they thought managers would ignore concerns or that filing a worker compensation claim would put a worker “in a bad position,” according to the report.

The workers volunteered to be interviewed. Others were drawn from a sample of workers who received medical checks for potential chemical vapor exposure or a random sample of workers trained to enter Hanford tank farms. Certain union workers, including safety representatives at the tank farms, also were asked to talk with reviewers.

The Department of Energy and its tank farm contractor, Washington River Protection Solutions, have worked to improve communication with the workforce on chemical vapor issues, including launching the hanfordvapors.com website.

Our workplace is, and always will be, a place where each of us can identify issues and discuss them without fear of retaliation.

Mark Lindholm, president of Washington River Protection Solutions

“However, in our discussions with management, we have concluded that management could take more steps to improve communication,” the report said.

Workers do not understand why proposals recommended in past reviews of chemical vapor issues have not been implemented to better protect workers, the report said. In some cases, there were technical issues with proposals.

“It is crucial that management improve its communication with workers so workers understand what had been proposed, studied, and decided, and why these proposals had not been implemented,” the review said.

Information on the evaluation of past recommendations to better control vapors also will be publicly available by the end of the year at hanfordvapors.com, according to DOE.

Mark Lindholm, president of Washington River Protection Solutions, sent a memo to workers Wednesday inviting them to share any concerns with him or a manager.

“Our workplace is, and always will be, a place where each of us can identify issues and discuss them without fear of retaliation,” he said.

Annette Cary: 509-582-1533, @HanfordNews

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