Hanford workers continue to report possible vapor exposure

Two Hanford workers reported symptoms of possible chemical vapor exposure Tuesday while working outside of tank farm fences.
Two Hanford workers reported symptoms of possible chemical vapor exposure Tuesday while working outside of tank farm fences. Associated Press file

Two Hanford workers reported symptoms consistent with chemical vapor exposure at Hanford Tuesday, despite a stop work called by the Hanford Atomic Metal Trades Council.

The stop work order requires a halt to any tasks all within the boundaries of Hanford tank farms if workers are not using mandatory supplied air respirators. Washington River Protection Solutions, the Hanford tank farm contractor, complied with the order by continuing work with employees in supplied air respirators Tuesday.

The two workers who reported symptoms were outside tank farm boundaries, and the supplied air respirator work order only covers work within the tank farms. They were outside the AP Tank Farm, a double-shell tank farm, where no work was being done, according to the tank farm contractor.

Other workers were told to leave the area and access was restricted. Air samples were collected, which Washington River Protection Solutions said showed that air quality was compliant with safety standards and access was restored.

The two workers were given a medical evaluation and cleared to return to work.

They bring the number of workers receiving medical checks for possible chemical vapor exposure to about 55 in recent months. Some had respiratory symptoms, some smelled a suspicious odor and some were nearby when chemical vapors were suspected. All were cleared to return to work, according to Washington River Protection Solutions.

However, workers are concerned that exposure to the chemicals can result in serious respiratory or neurological illnesses.

Last month the Hanford Atomic Metal Trades Council, an umbrella group for 15 unions doing work at Hanford, demanded that supplied air respirators be required in all tank farms, which store radiological and hazardous chemical waste in underground tanks. The chemical vapors are associated with the waste held in the tanks.

When the tank farm contractor said it would not honor that demand, HAMTC called a stop to any work Monday in tank farms if workers were not wearing supplied air respirators. If discovered workers not wearing respirators in one double shell tank farm and a portion of another single shell tank farm Monday and told them to leave those tank farms, but other work continued.

Washington River Protection Solutions’ policy has been to require supplied air for work that increases the risk that chemical vapors are present but not for other work, including routine work in double shell tank farms that have exhausters. Most single shell tanks are passively vented into the atmosphere.

“Work in the farms is ongoing, with workers wearing supplied-air respirators when inside tank farm boundaries consistent with the stop work order,” the tank farm contractor said in a statement Tuesday. “WRPS is continuing to take appropriate actions to keep Hanford’s underground waste tanks operating safely and in compliance with regulatory starndards.”

Annette Cary: 509-582-1533, @HanfordNews