National board hears safety culture is improving at Hanford vit plant

The safety culture at the Hanford vitrification plant is improving, said Department of Energy officials at a public meeting Wednesday evening held by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board.

But the improvement is in its early stages and could stall if not given continued attention, said Glenn Podonsky, DOE director of the Office of Enterprise Assessments in Washington, D.C.

“While we have recently seen signs of positive progress there remains a tremendous amount to be done,” Podonsky said.

The safety board traveled to Kennewick for an update on progress in improving the safety culture at Hanford.

No action was taken at the meeting attended by more than 150 people because the board failed to have a quorum. Three of the board’s five members had planned to attend, but Daniel Santos was unable to travel for medical reasons, leaving just Sean Sullivan and Jessie Roberson at the meeting.

Podonsky’s office, an independent arm of DOE, completed its third assessment this spring of safety culture at the vitrification plant. It became an issue when the safety board concluded in 2011 that DOE and contractor management behavior reinforce a culture deterring the timely reporting, acknowledgment and resolution of technical concerns related to the future safe operation of the plant.

The latest study found improved results, after a decline in some measurements of safety culture between 2011 and 2014.

“The biggest challenge is to maintain the trust of employees,” said Kevin Smith, manager of the DOE Hanford office overseeing work at the vitrification plant. “Once lost, it takes a long time to restore.”

Restoring trust takes good leadership, good management, consistency and an unrelenting focus on getting technical issues identified and allowing employees a voice to be heard, he said.

He has tied 50 percent of the possible incentive pay for Bechtel National, DOE’s contractor for the vitrification plant, to self-discovery and self-reporting of issues, he said.

He’s also made clear that he has an open door for any employee who cannot get an issue resolved any other way, he said. He is seeing less use of the employee concerns program, but a program that allows employees to submit professional opinions that differ from the official stand on technical issues is thriving, he said.

Safety culture cannot be regulated; it has to be driven by leadership, Podonsky said. In years past, there have been well-intended promises of no retribution for workers who raise safety issues but little follow-through, he said.

Because of turnover in DOE leadership, including political appointees, improvements in safety culture need to be institutionalized among career DOE officials to make sure they are sustained, speakers said.

Sullivan asked if subcontractors are being held to the same safety standards as prime contractors. “Yes” was the answer for the vitrification plant project, said William Hamel, the DOE director of the project.

But Podonsky said that after recent talks with officials at 16 of DOE’s national laboratories he has concerns about the issue. His office’s enforcement teams will look at consistency in safety standards and will work with unions, whose employees may be used to following Office of Safety and Health Administration standards rather than DOE standards.

Roberson asked about conflict between Hanford and DOE staff in Washington, D.C., which was identified as an issue in the last review of safety culture at the vitrification plant.

Litigation of the Hanford consent decree slowed communication and may have colored the survey responses the report was based on, Smith said.

But having a clear course forward for the vitrification plant has provided more predictability for workers and allowed Hanford and Washington, D.C., workers to be “on the same team with the same focus,” he said. DOE is pursuing a plan to start treating some low-activity waste at the plant while technical issues related to high-level radioactive waste are resolved.