- Associated Press - Thursday, December 1, 2016

RICHLAND, Wash. (AP) - Many workers at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation do not trust the way the U.S. Department of Energy and its contractor are managing the issue of chemical vapors that are sickening some employees, according to a report issued this week by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

“Distrust is related to worker perceptions regarding lack of transparency, miscommunication between labor and management, and management skepticism that workers are being sickened from vapor exposures,” the report said.

The report found that thousands of air samples taken near nuclear waste storage tanks have shown few, if any, exposures exceeding limits set to keep workers safe from chemical vapors.

The Tri-City Herald reported that the vapors issue has bedeviled the sprawling former nuclear weapons production site for years. Six more workers were given medical evaluations Wednesday for possible exposure to chemical vapors, bringing the total since spring to more than 60. Nearly all were cleared to return to work after medical evaluations.

Typical symptoms reported by workers exposed to vapors are coughing, headaches, a metallic taste in the mouth and feeling light-headed. Workers are concerned that chemical exposure could lead to lung or nervous system illnesses.

Hanford for decades made plutonium for nuclear weapons, and 56 million gallons of the most dangerous waste from that work are stored in 177 giant underground tanks.

The tanks are owned by the energy department and managed by a private contractor, Washington River Protection Solutions.

The report found that worker distrust has been intensified by high-profile attention to the vapors issue from politicians and the media. That attention has contributed to an “adversarial and contentious relationship,” the report said.

The distrust has been compounded by what workers consider a dysfunctional workers’ compensation system, the report said.

The Department of Energy in June requested the review by NIOSH, a division of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that focuses on worker safety.

Union leadership told NIOSH reviewers that there is a perception that getting work done is valued more than worker safety.

The energy department and its Washington River Protection Solutions countered that despite significant investments and demonstrations of a strong commitment to resolve concerns, some unions and workers are not interacting with management in good faith, the report found.

The energy department has made significant investments toward worker protection from chemical vapors, the report said.

Some workers are concerned the energy department and its contractor are relying too heavily on exposure monitoring, rather than controlling the emissions of chemical vapors.

Workers also are concerned that monitoring equipment does not check for all chemicals that may be present.

More than 1,800 chemicals have been identified in the waste in different underground tanks, and independent experts have designated 59 as chemicals of potential concern.

But due to the complexity and changing nature of chemical constituents, characterizing exposures to all possible chemicals and mixtures is probably not possible, the report said.

A professional mediator may be needed to reconcile differences between workers and management and restore trust, the report said.


Information from: Tri-City Herald, https://www.tri-cityherald.com

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