Unions halt Hanford tank work over vapor protection

The Hanford Atomic Metal Trades Council called a halt Monday to any work in the Hanford tank farms without supplied air respirators.

Dave Molnaa, president of HAMTC, said he would not lift the stop-work order until supplied air respirators are mandatory for all work in Hanford tank farms.

“I am not backing off. At all. It is nonnegotiable,” he told the Herald Monday afternoon.

HAMTC, an umbrella group for 15 unions doing work at the Hanford nuclear reservation, issued a demand for the requirement on June 20, among other demands to better protect workers from chemical vapors.

About 700 people staff each shift at the tank farms where waste is stored until it can be turned into a stable glass form at the vitrification plant for disposal. It is left from the past production of plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program.

The Department of Energy’s tank farm contractor, Washington River Protection Solutions, responded to the demands late last week, saying there is no data to support supplied air respirators in double-shell tank farms for routine work.

Now the tank farm contractor requires that supplied air respirators be worn for much of the work near single-shell tanks, most of which are passively vented into the atmosphere, increasing the likelihood that workers could breathe in some of the tanks’ chemical vapors.

Double-shell tank farms have exhausters, but workers have still reported smelling suspicious odors or feeling ill there.

Monday morning a union safety representative notified Molnaa that workers were in one of the 200 East double-shell tank farms and were not wearing supplied air respirators. Molnaa called a stop to work there.

Later in the day, Molnaa learned that workers in the TX Tank Farm, a single-shell tank farm, were only being required to wear supplied air respirators in part of the tank farm. He called a halt to work there, also.

“Stopping work is not only a right, it is the responsibility of all WRPS workers who feel there is a safety issue,” said Mark Lindholm, the contractor president, in a memo to employees Monday afternoon.

The contractor is honoring the stop-work order requiring supplied air respirators within any tank farm boundary, he said.

Both HAMTC and the contractor have to reach agreement before a stop-work order can be lifted. However, work can continue in the meantime if workers are using supplied air respirators, Molnaa said.

The tank farm contractor has maintained that there is no basis for requiring supplied air respirators for routine work in double-shell tank farms. It has no data from technical evaluations to support the requirement and it was not recommended in an independent review of the Tank Vapors Assessment Team led by the Savannah River National Laboratory, it said.

“I’m just disappointed in their response,” Molnaa said. “How many workers have to sacrifice their health … to establish a basis?”

In recent months, about 53 workers have had medical checks after smelling suspicious odors, experiencing respiratory symptoms or being nearby when vapors were suspected. They were working in double shell and single shell tank farms and some were outside the farms.

All were cleared to return to work, according to Washington River Protection Solutions. But workers are concerned that chemical exposure could lead to serious lung or nervous system illnesses.

The tank farm contractor agreed to another of HAMTC’s demands, that any activities that disturb tank waste be conducted on night or weekend shifts. But it wants HAMTC to agree that those would be considered standard shifts, which would not provide premium pay of time and a half or double time pay.

HAMTC responded Monday that it requires a formal request for the change, as outlined in the parties’ collective bargaining agreement. It wants information on the specific hours, the start and end dates for the shifts, and worker classifications.

The change, which could include work on three-day weekends from Thursday night to early Monday mornings, could affect about 700 workers. Now the standard work week for most Hanford workers is 10-hour days Monday through Thursday.

HAMTC will evaluate the tank farm contractor’s progress in response to its other demands, including a demand that workers use lighter bottles with supplied air respirators.

“The council recognizes the important and great responsibility to execute the U.S. Department of Energy tank waste cleanup mission,” Molnaa wrote in a letter Monday to Washington River Protection Solutions.

“However, such mission does not, and will not, take precedence over worker safety,” Molnaa said in the letter. Washington River Protection Solutions is emptying radioactive and hazardous chemical waste from 149 leak-prone single shell tanks — and also from one double-shell tank with an interior leak — into 27 double-shell tanks.

Molnaa’s letter also criticized the Washington River Protection Solutions letter of July 7 that described the contractor’s efforts to improve worker protections from chemical vapors to a level that exceeds industry levels. There is no industry that compares with what Hanford workers face at the tank farms, including the 1,800 chemicals that may be contained in the head spaces of underground tanks, Molnaa said.

The tank farm contractor’s July 7 letter was “filled with good intentions and an overly optimistic vision for the tank farm of the future,” Molnaa said. But immediate actions are needed to protect workers.

While Washington River Protection Solutions continues to evaluate the feasibility of requiring supplied air respirators for all work within the tank farm, “We believe our current activities and future actions are aligned with and will address concerns related to worker safety,” Lindholm said in the message to employees.

The National Institute of Safety and Health, which is part of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, will visit July 25 as it studies chemical vapor issues. Washington River Protection Solutions is looking forward to hearing its views, Lindholm said.

Annette Cary: 509-582-1533, @HanfordNews

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