No major issues found in ill nuclear worker program review

An unidentified employee works in the Hanford 325 Building chemistry laboratory in a photo dated 1969.
An unidentified employee works in the Hanford 325 Building chemistry laboratory in a photo dated 1969.

The Department of Labor is generally following correct procedures to decide claims to compensate ill Hanford and other workers for exposures to toxic chemicals, according to a Government Accountability Office audit report.

However, workers who have had illnesses that could be caused by radioactive or non-radioactive chemicals need to keep checking a federal website for new information that could benefit their case.

The database at sem.dol.gov has grown from 300 to more than 3,000 possible links between toxins and illnesses since 2006, with information based on medical research regularly added. Workers or their families can search the site to see if health conditions may have been caused by chemicals they were exposed to on the job and the facilities where the chemicals were used.

If the Department of Labor concludes that exposure to a chemical at Hanford or Pacific Northwest National Laboratory likely caused diseases or health conditions, workers or their survivors may be eligible for up to $250,000 in compensation for wage loss and impairment plus coverage of medical expenses. The compensation is in addition to the $150,000 some workers may be eligible for if they have cancer that could have been caused by radiation.

Issues were found in about 10 percent of cases checked, but vast majority of issues would not affect case outcome.

“Workers were often unaware of the extreme personal hazards they faced while serving their nation and many became fully aware only when they were later stricken by illness,” the report said. “It is imperative their claims for compensation be given the due attention and care they deserve.”

The GAO audit looked at a sampling of 200 claims in Part E, the part of the program that covers all toxic chemicals, that were filed between January 2010 and December 2014. Half the cases were picked because they were for three of the most difficult types of medical conditions for the Department of Labor to adjudicate — hearing loss, chronic beryllium disease and Parkinson’s disease.

The audit found issues in the handling of about 10 percent of the cases.

However, in the vast majority of occurrences, the inconsistencies identified would not have been likely to affect the decision on the claim, the report said.

Issues included carelessness in letters sent to claimants, including incorrect dates, an incorrect address to send additional information, incomplete or contradictory information, and listing the wrong disease.

GAO auditors also were concerned that there was no consistent way for those deciding the claims to indicate they had used the most up-to-date information from the database, called the site exposure matrices, listing chemicals and as it has rapidly expanded.

DOL agreed with our recommendations and said that they will ultimately allow the agency to fulfill its mission of making timely, appropriate and accurate claim decisions.

GAO report

From fiscal 2006-15, the Department of Labor issued 10 notices for specific new links between chemicals and illnesses. They mostly focused on instances when a relatively large number of claims could potentially be affected.

For instance, in fiscal 2015, it notified claims examiners and posted on its public internet site that trichloroethylene, a solvent used at Hanford, had been linked to kidney cancer. Claims examiners were instructed to reopen claims that could involve the chemical and disease.

The Department of Labor already had found some concerns with claims development and accuracy of letters, but said it made improvements after discovering issues in claims processing from 2010 through 2012.

GAO recommended that program supervisors review letters to claimants about recommended and final decisions. It also recommended that a requirement be added to document that the database be checked for updates just prior to recommending a decision to deny a claim.

The Department of Labor agreed with the recommendations.

Annette Cary: 509-582-1533, @HanfordNews