Federal safety agency to evaluate Hanford chemical vapor issue

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has offered to conduct a short-term evaluation related to Hanford worker exposure to chemical vapors.

NIOSH is part of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention focusing on worker health and safety and is independent of the Department of Energy. This will be NIOSH’s second evaluation of tank vapor issues, with the first conducted in 2004.

The new evaluation, which is still in the planning stages, is expected to focus on four areas: medical, exposure assessment, safety and health program management, and exposure control.

“Bringing in an independent team of experts to make sure workers are being protected is a strong step in the right direction,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., in a statement. “I will be closely following this process to ensure this evaluation provides the guidance necessary to keep workers safe.”

Murray is the ranking member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. Sens. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., also called the independent evaluation an important step toward protecting workers.

For more than 20 years, Hanford workers have raised issues of chemical vapors associated with waste held in underground tanks from the past production of plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program.

In recent months, about 53 workers have received medical evaluations for possible exposure to chemical vapors. Workers are concerned that chemical exposure could cause serious health problems.

NIOSH plans to review policies and operational procedures for evaluating worker health concerns for all employees associated with Hanford tank farms. The medical review will look at monitoring of employee health, the clinical evaluations done when workers may have been exposed and how medical data is evaluated.

It will consider how worker exposures are assessed by reviewing sampling of possible vapors, response to concerns regarding possible exposure and how data is analyzed to identify trends.

NIOSH will review policies regarding communication with workers, including communication of risk related to chemical vapors.

It also will look at what controls are being used to protect workers from chemical vapors.

No schedule has been set for the review, although DOE has sent NIOSH a list of activities from now through October that it might want to observe.

Hanford’s top DOE managers, Stacy Charboneau and Kevin Smith, responded to NIOSH’s offer, saying it was very much appreciated. DOE will ensure it has full access to information and workers to interview, they said in a letter.

Hanford officials already talk regularly with NIOSH officials on health and safety issues. For instance, in March, DOE asked NIOSH for its professional assessment of the potential development of a study of symptoms reported by tank farm workers. NIOSH responded then with a recommendation for a focused clinical review of workers who had symptoms and their medical records. Hanford officials are pursuing the recommendation.

Wyden said in a statement that his meeting last month in the Tri-Cities with some tank farm workers made it clear that the new NIOSH independent review is needed “to get to the bottom of this decades-long health threat.”

“Worker safety is our number one priority, and this decision will both increase transparency and identify means to improve the department’s health and safety procedures,” Cantwell said, in a statement. She is the ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Annette Cary: 509-582-1533, @HanfordNews

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