Hanford

Hanford contractor counters on union chemical vapor demands

Washington River Protection Solutions has offered to make nights and weekends the standard shift for work at the Hanford tank farms as part of a plan to better protect workers from chemical vapors. Fewer workers would be on site then.
Washington River Protection Solutions has offered to make nights and weekends the standard shift for work at the Hanford tank farms as part of a plan to better protect workers from chemical vapors. Fewer workers would be on site then. Courtesy WRPS

The Hanford tank farm contractor is asking unions to approve making nights and weekend work the standard shifts at the site’s tank farms.

But it will not agree to mandating that workers wear supplied air respirators for routine work activities in the double-shell tank farms, where the contractor believes the risk of chemical vapors is low.

Washington River Protection Solutions responded Thursday to demands made June 20 by the Hanford Atomic Metal Trades Council (HAMTC) to better protect workers from chemical vapors associated with waste stored in underground tanks.

HAMTC, an umbrella group for 15 unions with workers at Hanford, had demanded that any work that could cause the release of chemical vapors be done only on evening, night or weekend shifts, when fewer workers are on site.

It also had asked that supplied air respirators be required for any work within the Hanford tank farms and, in some cases, for workers who are as much as 200 feet beyond the perimeter fence lines of the tank farms.

If HAMTC agrees to make Hanford night and weekend work standard, employees would not receive premium pay of one and a half times or double for the shifts.

Washington River Protection Solutions President Mark Lindholm, in a letter, said the contractor also would need to reach a similar agreement with the building trades unions, which are not part of HAMTC.

WRPS is implementing a comprehensive, multi-faceted program to enhance tank farm worker protection to a level that continues to exceed today’s industry and regulatory standards.

Mark Lindholm, WRPS president

Lindholm estimated that the proposed new standard shift would be staffed with about 700 people and would continue through at least the end of September. Washington River Protection Solutions is scheduled to have completed the first phase by then of implementing improvements in chemical vapor safety recommended by an independent team.

There is no basis for mandating supplied air respirators for routine work in double-shell tank farms, given technical evaluations and other actions taken to better protect workers, he said. Most of the single-shell tanks are passively vented into the atmosphere, but the double-shell tank have exhausters.

Supplied air respirators are currently required when there is an increased chance that vapors may be released.

HAMTC also had demanded that only 30-minute bottles be carried for supplied air respirators, and heavier 60-minute cylinders be immediately removed from service. It also asked that lighter and better equipment, including ergonomically designed harnesses, be purchased for workers using supplied air respirators.

Washington River Protection Solutions will evaluate activities that can be safely and effectively performed using 30-minute bottles, Lindholm said. For those activities, requests for the lighter bottles would be honored until its supply runs out. More of the lighter bottles are being purchased.

In addition, different supplied air respirator harnesses will be evaluated to find harnesses that are lighter and more comfortable. Other options to reduce weight will be evaluated, including higher-pressure bottles and breathing air compressors.

Washington River Protection Solutions also is working to limit traffic on roads near work that could increase the likelihood of chemical vapor releases. Postings and electronic reader boards are under consideration.

Lindholm said all Hanford contractors will be notified when tank farm work is planned that would disturb waste, which has been linked to the release of chemical vapors.

The council firmly believes that more immediate actions need to be taken in order to prevent further exposures or potential exposures to the work force.

Dave Molnaa, HAMTC president, in letter with demands

The tank farm contractor already has delayed plans to bring in additional office trailers near tank farm boundaries, until it completes more work toward implementing recommendations made in an independent assessment led by the Savannah River National Laboratory.

“WRPS is implementing a comprehensive, multi-faceted program to enhance tank farm worker protection to a level that continues to exceed today’s industry and regulatory standards,” Lindholm said in the letter.

Many of the activities already underway support demands and some additional recommendations made by HAMTC on June 20.

Chemical cartridges are being tested for effectiveness to see if they offer protection against chemical vapors and would allow air-purifying respirators to be used by workers instead of supplied air respirators.

More sampling of the chemical vapors in the head space of underground tanks is being done, with data consistent with prior sampling and analysis, Lindholm said.

New exhauster systems and improved exhaust stacks are being installed.

In addition, Washington River Protection Solutions has been working with Pacific Northwest National Laboratory to test new technology, including bottles for workers to grab a sample for testing if they suspect vapors, as well as monitors to track and identify vapor plumes.

“WRPS will always be steadfast in its commitment to employee safety — it is simply the right way to do business,” Lindholm said in a message to tank farm employees Thursday. “I am also committed to maintaining a strong working partnership with HAMTC.”

Dave Molnaa, president of HAMTC, was not available to comment Thursday.

In recent months, about 53 Hanford workers have received medical checks for possible exposure to chemical vapors. Some smelled suspicious odors, some had respiratory symptoms and others were in the vicinity when vapors were suspected. Workers are concerned that exposure to chemicals could lead to serious neurological or respiratory illnesses.

HAMTC officials have not said what they would do if demands are not met, but union officials or workers have the right to call a halt to work if they believe it cannot be done safely.

Stop work orders can be lifted at the tank farms if the contractor there and HAMTC reach consensus that it is safe for workers to return to the job.

Annette Cary: 509-582-1533, @HanfordNews

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