Feds hit Hanford contractor for whistleblower retaliation
The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has ordered the Hanford contractor in charge of the site's 177 underground nuclear waste tanks to re-instate an employee who was fired after repeatedly voicing safety concerns. The federal agency also ordered the company, Washington River Protection Solutions (WRPS), to pay the employee $200,000 in back wages, interest, attorney's fees and damages.
According to OSHA, WRPS employee Shelly Doss raised concerns to her supervisors about nuclear and environmental safety, permit and record-keeping violations. An OSHA investigation found WRPS fired Doss in October 2011 in retaliation "for reporting to (WRPS) management and to government agencies what she believed were several ... violations."
"The people most able to identify hazards are often the workers who are threatened by them," said Galen Lemke, OSHA's acting regional administrator. "Employees must never be punished for sounding an alarm when they see a problem that could injure, sicken or kill someone, or harm the environment."
WRPS has 30 days to review the OSHA decision and request a hearing before a U.S. Department of Labor Administrative Law Judge.
In a statement to the media, WRPS said Doss "was one of more than 200 employees who were laid off by the company in the fall of 2011 to align its employment levels with project work scope and federal funding. The employee's raising of safety or environmental questions was not a factor in the selection for lay-off."
Doss was a 20-year veteran of the Hanford workforce. She worked as an environmental compiance specialist at the time of her firing in 2011.
"Shelly Doss is an example of the talented, motivated and respected worker that the public expects to be working at Hanford," said Tom Carpenter of the watchdog group Hanford Challenge, which represented Doss in her whistleblower claim. Doss "properly reported and documented numerous environmental violations in a professional manner, and suggested ways to resolve those issues. Instead of praising her, WRPS management vilified her, ruined her career, and illegally fired her from her position," Carpenter said.
The OSHA decision is the latest set-back for WRPS after two-years of problems at Hanford. The company was at the center of the 2013 KING 5 Investigators series "Hanford's Dirty Secrets," which exposed that the company ignored for a year scientific evidence and warnings from employees about a leaking nuclear waste tank.
In 2014, KING 5 exposed how WRPS and its employer, the U.S. Department of Energy, failed to follow decades-old expert advice on protecting workers from exposure to toxic chemical vapors. Since March, nearly 50 employees have sought medical attention or treatment after exposure to vapors at Hanford. WRPS and the federal government have done little in the months since to better protect the workers, insisting in public statements that there is little evidence that chemical vapors are harming workers. KING 5 also reported on how Hanford workers are routinely denied benefits and other assistance once they do get sick.
In its statement, WRPS said it "is committed to conducting its work at Hanford safely and in compliance with applicable requirements," adding that its workers are "empowered and encouraged to raise safety or other workplace concerns."
Hanford is located near Richland. Plutonium for the country's nuclear defense program was produced at site from 1943 to 1987. Since 1989, it has been a clean-up operation only -- plagued by delays, cost overruns and a poor safety culture.