Senators ask for quick action to address Hanford chemical vapors

Workers now wear supplied air respirators and carry air bottles on their backs in the Hanford tank farms as a protection against chemical vapors.
Workers now wear supplied air respirators and carry air bottles on their backs in the Hanford tank farms as a protection against chemical vapors. Courtesy DOE

Three key senators are pressing the energy secretary to move quickly and definitively to take action on new recommendations to protect workers from chemical vapors at the Hanford nuclear reservation.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, or NIOSH, released a review with multiple recommendations last week following a June request by the Department of Energy.

“We request that DOE develop an implementation plan which includes a clear schedule and the funding necessary to carry them out successfully,” said a letter sent Monday to Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz by Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, both D-Wash., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore.

“Nothing less than a complete commitment to safety at Hanford is acceptable,” the letter said.

Since the report was completed on Nov. 28, a dozen more workers have been given medical exams after smelling suspicious, ammonia-like odors. All were cleared to return to work, but workers are concerned that chemical exposure associated with waste held in underground tanks could lead to serious neurological or respiratory illnesses.

The report noted that few, if any, of thousands of air samples collected have shown exposures above limits set to protect workers from key chemicals in the vapors. It also acknowledged that the health effects of mixtures of chemicals in the vapors are not clear.

DOE has spent more than $50 million to improve safety with new monitoring and detecting technologies in the past year, and its contractor has hired more than 100 additional industrial hygiene staff and technicians.

Recommendations in the report covered four areas, ranging from ways to control worker exposures to ways to restore worker trust in management.

They included:

▪  Leadership of DOE and its tank farm contractor, Washington River Protection Solutions, should acknowledge health and exposure concerns as legitimate.

DOE and its contractor may need to turn to professional mediation or arbitration to find points of agreement and establish a path forward on tank farm worker safety and health issues that is acceptable to all.

▪  Meetings should be held to allow workers to ask questions and discuss their concerns about the worker compensation program with the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries’ workers’ compensation ombudsman.

A focused review of worker medical data is needed to help establish the most appropriate medical screening and care for tank farm workers.

▪  A conservative approach should be used to establish tank farm perimeters, basing them on evidence of chemical vapors as much as possible. Workers are required to use respiratory protection to enter tank farm perimeters.

The number of workers entering the tank farms should be limited to as few as necessary, and people working nearby may need to be assigned to different offices in some cases.

▪  A centralized website or manual is needed to explain industrial hygiene procedures in a way that management and workers can understand.

The importance of initial and recurring training for industrial hygiene technicians should be emphasized to ensure they are familiar with new technology and how data are interpreted and explained to workers.

Annette Cary: 509-582-1533, @HanfordNews