Hanford union group issues demands for chemical vapor protection

The Hanford Atomic Metal Trades Council has issued a list of demands to Hanford nuclear reservation officials for immediate actions to better protect workers from chemical vapors.

“The council believes the time for requests, suggestions and/or recommendations has long since passed and that a more aggressive approach and immediate actions are required,” said HAMTC in a letter delivered Monday to the Department of Energy and its tank farm contractor, Washington River Protection Solutions. HAMTC is an umbrella group for 15 unions with members doing Hanford work.

It is demanding that all work that could cause the release of chemical vapors associated with the waste held in Hanford’s underground tanks be performed only on evening or night shifts or on weekends. Fewer workers would be on site at those times.

It wants vapor control zones set up that extend at least 200 feet beyond the perimeter of fence lines in the tank farms where work that might cause the release of emissions is being done. The work that could potentially cause emissions includes sampling, mixing, transferring, retrieving or other tasks that would disturb waste or venting related to tank waste, according to the letter.

All work within any tank farm plus any work within the expanded vapor control zones would require the mandatory use of supplied air respirators, under the HAMTC demands. Now supplied air respirators are only required if work is being done that Hanford officials believe might create a risk of chemical vapors being present.

Roads would be barricaded to make sure vehicles not enter any vapor control zones that extend across them.

HAMTC also is demanding that supplied air cylinders that workers carry be limited to 30-minute cylinders. It is calling for the heavier 60-minute cylinders to be immediately removed form service.

“In addition, more emphasis should be placed on acquiring alternative supplied air respirators such as re-breathers, lighter cylinders, and more advanced equipment and ergonomically supplied air respirators,” HAMTC said.

Although HAMTC officials have not said what they would do if demands are not met, union officials or workers have the right to call a halt to work if they believe working conditions are not safe. Stop work orders can be lifted if the tank farm contractor and HAMTC reach consensus that it is safe for workers to return to the job.

“As WRPS evaluates the demands, we will work with the union and the Department of Energy to determine a path forward to safely and efficiently continue our important mission,” said Mark Lindholm, president of the tank farm contractor, in a message to employees Monday.

The Washington State Department of Ecology, the regulator for the Hanford tank farms, had received a copy of the letter Monday afternoon and was still evaluating it, said Alex Smith, program manager of the department’s Nuclear Waste Program.

DOE released a statement saying it would closely follow its contractor’s actions in determining the appropriate path forward.

“DOE remains committed to the safety of the Hanford workforce, and to ensuring that workers have the protective equipment and controls necessary to safely and effectively conduct work in the tank farms,” DOE said.

Chemical vapors at Hanford have been an issue for at least 20 years, with numerous reports and recommendations made. But workers continue to experience adverse health effects from the vapors, the HAMTC letter pointed out.

Since late April about 53 workers have received medical checks for possible exposure to chemical vapors at or near the Hanford tank farms. The 53rd check was done on Monday after a worker reported symptoms possibly related to a suspicious odor outside the AZ Tank Farm.

Hanford has 177 underground waste storage tanks arranged in groups called farms. They hold waste from the past production of plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program. Workers could be checked for vapor exposure if they smell a suspicious odor, have symptoms that are typically respiratory related or are near where other workers have symptoms or smell an odor.

Measures to protect workers in the HAMTC demands could be expected to cost more money and work would be more time consuming. Leak-prone tanks at Hanford are being emptied into sturdier tanks for storage until the vitrification plant under construction is ready to treat the waste with money appropriated annually by Congress.

New deadlines were set in March for work at the Hanford tank farms by a federal judge who ruled on proposed amendments to the court-enforced 2010 consent decree.

DOE had argued in the case that having workers on supplied air respirators caused a decrease in efficiency of 30 to 70 percent and had asked that deadlines be extended by a year for every two years workers spent on supplied air respirators. Its request was not granted.

Workers are paid one and a half, and sometimes two times, their standard pay for inconvenient shifts, including those on weekends. There also would be costs to purchasing new and better equipment.

“The council believes our demands are not unachievable nor unreasonable,” HAMTC said in the letter.

HAMTC also wants other changes, which it said were not demands but “strongly” recommended.

Those include improving medical and first aid coverage by the on-site occupational health care provider; moving people, equipment and office trailers farther away from the tank farms if it was not essential they be located there; improving monitoring equipment and improving assessment of worker exposures to the chemical vapors.

The most recent study done to better protect workers, which was led by the Savannah River National Laboratory in South Carolina, resulted in a detailed plan that the tank farm contractor began implementing about 16 months ago.

Changes have included requiring supplied air respirators during certain activities, increasing monitoring for vapors and deploying state-of-the-art vapor detection equipment.

“The more recent efforts regarding data collection and access to that data are important and should continue,” HAMTC said. “However, such data has so far only proved itself useful after an incident has occurred.”

Checks after potential vapor events to date have not found any chemical vapors that exceed occupational exposure limits set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

There may be unique circumstances, such as continuing critical operations or emergencies, that may prevent the tank farm contractor and DOE from strict adherence to all the HAMTC demands and recommendations, the letter said.

In those cases, HAMTC expects to be consulted before work is done to provide reasonable alternatives and flexibility in operations, the letter said.

Hanford workers have provided a valuable service to the federal government for almost 70 years and wants to continue that work, the letter said.

“However, in doing so, workers should not be subjected to, and will not tolerate inadequate, substandard or unsafe working conditions that may affect their health and safetly,” the HAMTC letter said.

Annette Cary: 509-582-1533, @HanfordNews

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