Review finds distrust at Hanford tank farms; 6 more workers tested

Hanford workers exit a tank farm on a foggy day.
Hanford workers exit a tank farm on a foggy day. Tri-City Herald file

Thousands of air samples taken in and near Hanford tank farms have shown few, if any, exposures exceeding occupational limits set to keep workers safe from chemical vapors, according to a report by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

But workers and union leadership have considerable distrust for the way the Department of Energy and its contractor, Washington River Protection Solutions, are managing chemical vapor issues.

“Distrust is related to worker perceptions regarding lack of transparency, miscommunication between labor and management, and management skepticism that workers are being sickened from vapor exposures,” said the report, issued Monday.

Six more workers were given medical evaluations Wednesday for possible exposure to chemical vapors, bringing the total since spring to more than 60.

Worker distrust has been intensified by high-profile attention to the issue by the state attorney general, congressional representatives, the media, advocacy groups and the DOE inspector general, the report said. The attention has contributed to an “adversarial and contentious relationship.”

The distrust has been compounded by what workers consider an onerous and dysfunctional workers’ compensation system, the report said.

Union leadership indicated there is a perception that production is valued over safety and this is a root cause of the ongoing tank farm exposure concerns.

NIOSH report

The Department of Energy in June requested a review by NIOSH, the part of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention focusing on worker health and safety. NIOSH is independent of DOE.

Union leadership told NIOSH reviewers that there is a perception that getting work done is valued over safety.

DOE and its contractor representatives countered that despite significant investments and demonstrations of a strong commitment to resolve concerns, some unions and workers are not interacting with management in good faith, according to the report prepared by NIOSH reviewers.

The report found DOE and its contractor have made significant investments toward worker protection from chemical vapors, including installing monitoring technology and hiring industrial hygiene technicians and other occupational safety and health staff.

Some workers, however, are concerned DOE and its contractor are relying too heavily on exposure monitoring, rather than controlling the emissions of chemical vapors.

Workers also are concerned that monitoring equipment does not check for all chemicals that may be present, and that results may not reflect hazards associated with a complex mixture of compounds.

More than 1,800 chemicals have been identified in the waste in different underground tanks, and independent experts have designated 59 as chemicals of potential concern. The waste is left from the past processing of irradiated fuel to remove plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program.

NIOSH found that standard practices had been used to develop occupational exposure limits. But the worker protection program had fallen short on the important point of how the limits should be applied for risk assessment, given the wide array of possible mixtures of chemicals, it said.

Due to the complexity and changing nature of chemical constituents, comprehensively characterizing exposures to all possible chemicals and mixtures likely is not possible, according to NIOSH.

DOE and WRPS leadership and staff should acknowledge health and exposure concerns as legitimate.

NIOSH report

Worker complaints about the compensation program are a long-standing area of contention, the NIOSH report said.

Workers said it was unfair to place the burden on workers to demonstrate that health conditions are related to their work.

They become frustrated when the insurer disputes that conditions were work-related because of insufficient proof of exposure, or because a particular health effect cannot be attributed to work, the report said.

Workers are now wearing supplied air respirators within tank farms to protect against breathing in chemical vapors, but that is not a long-term solution, the report said. Hanford officials need to find ways to prevent vapors from reaching workers. It praised new technology being tested by the tank farm contractor to improve monitoring and identify chemical vapors.

The tank farm contractor could take additional steps, including minimizing the number of workers who enter tank farms and using offices farther from the tank farms, where possible.

The report also recommended DOE and its contractor redouble efforts to listen and respond to workers.

“It is important to respond to all complaints promptly and seriously and to establish credibility through open communication and visibility with employees,” the NIOSH report said.

DOE and contractor leadership need to spend time in the tank farms to ensure they are available to workers and to demonstrate their commitment to work safety, the report said.

A professional mediator may be needed to reconcile differences between workers and management and restore trust, it said.

Workers were allowed to return to the AX Tank Farm and surrounding area on Wednesday.

On Wednesday morning, four Hanford workers reported symptoms consistent with exposure to chemical vapors in the AX tank farm.

Five others reported suspicious odors as workers were putting on protective clothing in a dressing facility outside the tank farm, according to Washington River Protection Solutions. Supplied air respirators are not required outside tank farm fence lines.

Workers inside the tank farm and those at the dressing facility were instructed to leave the area. No waste-disturbing work, which can increase the likelihood of vapor emissions, was being conducted inside the AX tank farm at the time of the report.

Six workers, including the four reporting symptoms, were given medical evaluations. The other three workers declined.

All workers were released to return to work, according to Washington River Protection Solutions.

Although symptoms were not made public because of medical privacy laws, typical symptoms reported are coughing, headaches, a metallic taste in the mouth and feeling light-headed. Workers are concerned that chemical exposure could lead to serious lung or nervous system illnesses.

Annette Cary: 509-582-1533, @HanfordNews