Business has been brisk for a new government center in Richland helping current and former ill Hanford workers navigate a complicated system of benefits.
Officials gathered for the grand opening of the Hanford Workforce Engagement Center on Thursday.
But since its soft opening a month ago, it has served 609 people.
"It already is a success and it has just started," said Jeff McDaniel, president of the Hanford Atomic Metal Trades Council, an umbrella group for Hanford nuclear reservation unions.
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In one case, the center was able to help a family find additional job records for a former union worker, linking his job title to work with possible hazardous chemical or radiation exposures that could have made him ill, said Gail Splett, Department of Energy program manager.
A manager of the federal compensation program administered by the Department of Labor has agreed to take a second look at the case, Splett said.
It appears likely that the claim will be approved through the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program.
That's just one case from a fairly even mix of current and former workers, including some family members, who have come into the center so far, said Calin Tebay, workforce specilalist.
Help is available to people ranging from the survivors of 1940s workers at the site who developed cancer to current workers submitting compensation claims for exposure to chemical vapors at the site.
"Most people just don't realize the options that are available," Tebay said.
The federal program already has paid $1.75 billion in compensation and medical care reimbursement for ill Hanford and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory workers.
Benefits can come from either the federal or a newly revised state program that may pay a combination of medical reimbursement, lost wages and compensation for illnesses caused by exposure to radiation or hazardous chemicals.
There also are free medical screening programs available, programs offered by individual Hanford contractors and a program for workers exposed to beryllium, a metal that can cause lung disease.
The center outlines options and provides contacts to make sure that its clients choose the path that's right for them, Tebay said.
"Today marks a new era of collaboration to ensure timely, fair treatment of workers both past and present who have supported the Hanford mission," said Anne White, the new assistant secretary of energy for environmental management. She was on her second visit to Hanford after being sworn in a month ago.
She'd like to use it as a model throughout the DOE nuclear cleanup complex, she said.
Workers on the ground "are delivering this cleanup mission," she said. "It's important facilities like this are created so they are cared for."
The center should help retain a highly skilled workforce, said Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash.
About two years ago Doug Shoop, the DOE Richland Operations Office manager, approached leadership of the Central Washington Building Trades Council, launching a pretty emotional discussion about how to help ill workers at Hanford, said Mike Bosse, council president.
The idea for the center was launched, helped by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. She inserted language into an appropriations bill directing DOE to establish a center to address occupational health issues and to navigate the claims process, according to her staff.
As Hanford workers tackle some of the most challenging environmental cleanup work at the site once used to produce plutonium for the nation's nuclear weapons program, it's essential that help is available for exposed workers and available quickly, Cantwell said.
"We are not done," she said. "We want to continue to improve the federal claims process. . . . We have to be vigilant, and we have to respect the tremendous amount of sacrifice that many, many Hanford workers have made over generations."
The center, at 309 Bradley Blvd., Suite 120, is open 6 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday to Friday. Walk-ins are welcome, or appointments may be made by calling 509-376-4932.
Information is posted at www.hanford.gov/hwec.