November 10, 2016

Department of Energy’s Actions to Address Worker Concerns Regarding Vapor Exposures at the Hanford Tank Farms

For decades, the Department of Energy has been storing and managing millions of gallons of chemical and radioactive wastes in the Hanford tank farms, in Washington State.  Approximately 56 million gallons of this waste are stored in dozens of aging tanks.  Tank operations routinely occur to manage the waste, to transfer waste from old or leaking tanks, to perform evaporation activities, and to perform other actions that are referred to as “waste disturbing activities.”  Tank waste generates vapors as heat and radiation break down chemical compounds.  From time to time, workers at the tank farms are exposed to these vapors.  When inhaled at high enough concentrations, according to an independent panel of experts, some of these vapors may represent a serious occupational hazard to the tank farm workforce.  Due to the hazards associated with vapors, the Department and its contractors have engaged in various activities in an attempt to minimize the risk of human exposure.  Since 2014, the Department and its tank operations contractor, Washington River Protection Solutions, LLC (WRPS), have been engaged in renewed activities to measure, minimize, and mitigate exposure.  Nevertheless, incidents of worker exposure to vapors continue to occur.

We were informed that some workers may not feel comfortable expressing their concerns about vapors due to fear of retaliation from management.  Accordingly, we initiated this special review to assess whether a problem with fear of retaliation existed and to assess the status of actions that are underway to address the risks posed by vapors.

Seven of the 52 workers we interviewed indicated that they had concerns with reporting, communicating, reprisal, or fear of retaliation related to potential vapor exposures.  One of the workers had filed a formal complaint regarding retaliation.  The remaining workers we spoke to generally told us that they felt free to discuss their concerns about vapors without fear of retaliation.  Additionally, while we found that a number of actions were underway to address the risks posed by vapors, such as evaluating technologies in the tank farms, we found that improvements in communication are needed to inform workers about the status of actions and to ameliorate continuing fear of retaliation on the part of some workers.

Further, we noted that the hazards associated with tank farm vapor exposures have been evaluated through multiple studies and evaluations.  We observed that these activities have resulted in various recommendations and that actions were underway to address issues identified in those reviews.  Our assessment did not identify concerns with the current status of these actions, which, according to WRPS information, largely appear to be on schedule.  However, we noted that a major labor union issued a letter demanding that additional measures be taken to further protect the workforce, including extending hazard zones, changing worker schedules, and increasing mandates for the use of supplied air respiratory protective equipment inside the tank farm fences.  We are aware that WRPS and the union reached an agreement to resolve these concerns.  Our review identified areas where we believe management can take steps to improve its issue resolution process, such as tracking and reporting of underway corrective actions and communicating with the workforce.  In our view, improving these areas is critical to ensuring that actions taken to resolve the recommendations for improvement are transparent to members of the workforce and other interested parties.

Topic: Management & Administration