Program for sick and injured Hanford workers is troubled, audit finds

Hanford Workforce Engagement Center opening

DOE program manager Gail Splett tells about the opening of the Hanford Workforce Engagement Center in Richland. The facility is for current and former Hanford workers and their families who have occupational health questions.
Up Next
DOE program manager Gail Splett tells about the opening of the Hanford Workforce Engagement Center in Richland. The facility is for current and former Hanford workers and their families who have occupational health questions.

The Hanford workers’ compensation program has problems, ranging from controls over federal money to a lack of worker trust, according to a new DOE Office of Inspector General audit report.

Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, both D-Wash., requested the inspector general investigate the program at the nuclear reservation.

The IG audit report released Thursday said it found a wide range of problems, including a lack of good communication with ill or injured workers filing compensation claims.

“This report should act as a wake-up call for the Department of Energy that improving safety and support workers at Hanford is a never-ending job,” Cantwell said.

“Over and over these investigations show that lack of communication and transparency leads to mistrust between workers and the Department (of Energy),” she said.

Investigators looked for evidence of potential harassment and intimidation of workers filing workers’ compensation claims, but found no direct evidence to confirm or refute the allegations, the report said.

About 340 worker compensation claims are opened for Hanford workers each year and “the large majority of these claims appear to be managed, processed, and paid without raising any concerns,” the audit report found.

The audit found that claims for injuries, such as cuts, were easily processed and most were approved.

But workers with more complicated claims, such as claims for inhaling chemical vapors, reported a high level of frustration.

The vapors are associated with underground tanks of waste left from the past production of plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program.

hanford worker.jpg
Investigators for the Department of Energy Office of Inspector General heard concerns about how claims for exposure to chemical vapors at the Hanford tank farms were handled. Workers wear supplied air respirators to keep from breathing the vapors. Courtesy Washington River Protection Solutions

Workers with vapor exposure claims would have to meet with multiple medical providers, who sometimes gave different diagnoses.

“Even the most current technology, science and medicine are limited in their ability to discern, delineate and predict health effects from myriad chemicals, particularly at low levels of exposure or when non-specific transient symptoms occur,” the audit report said.

The report did not address a change made in state law this year that eases requirements for workers seeking compensation for illnesses that could be caused by exposure at Hanford to chemicals or radioactive material.

Starting this summer, the state workers’ compensation program must assume that respiratory and neurological illnesses and many types of cancer were caused by working at Hanford, although representatives of the federal government can present evidence of other causes.

DOE is self-insured for workers’ compensation claims filed through the state Department of Labor and Industries. DOE contracts with a third party, currently Penser North America, to process claims.

Penser makes a recommendation on whether a claim should be accepted or denied, but the state makes the final decision.

The audit found that Penser was not submitting all claim information it had to L&I after investigators looked at certain claims with extensive paperwork. But the audit made no finding on whether that affected the outcome of the claims.

The report also said that workers were not given enough information about why claims were recommended for denial by Penser.

Notifications made statements such as “condition is not the result of industrial injury” without including supporting facts or medical diagnoses.

“In our opinion, the lack of analysis on the written notifications could have contributed to a sense of frustration among workers,” the audit report said.

A Department of Energy Office of Inspector General audit found that the workers’ compensation program at Hanford works well for straightforward claims, such as those for cuts and scrapes. Courtesy Department of Energy

It pointed out that the Penser contract required that it provide “exceptional customer service.”

“The challenges associated with communication are exacerbated by a fragmented Hanford Site workers’ compensation process that workers find confusing,” the report said.

“The process involves many players, including the worker, the operating contractors, the union, health advocates, the occupational medical services, the Department (of Energy), Penser, physicians and medical professionals, attorneys and L&I,” it said.

One doctor interviewed by investigators said he stopped accepting Hanford L&I claims because of a time-consuming process that included talking to judges and lawyers and writing letters.

The audit also found a major billing and payment discrepancy with the state related to pension benefits cost, and it found concerns with the letter of credit and payment processes, the report said.

The state failed to bill DOE for $21.8 million it paid as a pension to permanently disabled Hanford workers from 2000 to 2016. DOE was supposed to pay the costs and had the data to detect the billing problem, but did not, the audit said.

The state and DOE have since reached an agreement to settle the matter.

In most cases other than pensions, Penser used a letter of credit from DOE to cover workers’ time loss checks, medical bills, attorney fees and other compensation claims costs.

DOE did not reconcile its letter of credit payments to Penser’s records, invoices and payments, the audit report said.

Investigators found one case in which Penser received a $175,000 check on behalf of DOE and did not return all of the money to DOE for almost nine months, the report said.

Investigators also found $9,879 from canceled checks that were not returned to DOE. Neither DOE nor Penser were aware of the excess funds in Penser’s bank account, the audit report said.

DOE program manager Gail Splett tells about the opening of the Hanford Workforce Engagement Center in Richland. The facility is for current and former Hanford workers and their families who have occupational health questions.

Because the account was used for both DOE and non-DOE accounts, overpayments from DOE were difficult to track, the audit report said.

To fix the problems identified in the audit DOE needs to drastically change course and increase it involvement in all aspects of the workers’ compensation program, according to the audit.

Murray said Hanford employees working in extremely hazardous conditions “deserve all the protections and care available without hassle or delay.”

The Hanford Workforce Engagement Center, opened in April by DOE, is a step in the right direction to improve communication, the audit said.

Workers can visit the center to get help understanding workers compensation benefits available. It is at 309 Bradley Blvd., Suite 120, in Richland. Call 509-376-4932.

DOE also has worked to bring L&I ombudsmen to the Hanford site to serve as a resource for workers.

DOE said in its written response to the audit report that it was reassured that concerns were not raised on the large majority of Hanford workers’ compensation claims and that neither Penser nor DOE were found to be treating chemical vapor claims unfairly.

DOE agreed it needed to strengthen controls over claims processing and financial management. It has contracted with an independent auditor for a look at the Penser contract, including the accounts used for claims processing.

Annette Cary: 509-582-1533