Chemical vapor incidents prompt ‘stop work’ at Hanford

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by SUSANNAH FRAME / KING 5 News

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KING5.com

Posted on April 3, 2014 at 1:45 PM

Concerns about repeated exposures to chemical vapors at Hanford prompted a "stop work" order late Monday by two employees of one of the main contractors at the site.

Two-dozen workers have reported medical problems over the past two weeks after breathing chemical vapors. The vapors were detected primarily in the Hanford area that houses large tanks holding radioactive waste.

The order forbids all employees of the contractor -- the Mission Support Alliance -- from entering the tank farm area or going within 100 yards of it until it is lifted. About 500 workers are affected; MSA performs support jobs at Hanford such as crane operation, truck driving, tank maintenance, security and fire protection.

Fred Rumsey, a shop steward for the Boilermakers Union, is one of the workers who initiated the action. He told KING 5 that MSA workers are “fed up” with the poor communication they've received from the U.S. Department of Energy and Washington River Protection Solutions (WRPS), the contractor that manages the tank operations.

“The rumor mill is going crazy because the Department of Energy isn’t saying anything. WRPS isn’t saying anything. We don’t know what’s going on,” said Rumsey.

The series of chemical vapor reports by Hanford workers started on March 19. Since that day, 24 workers have reported being exposed to potentially harmful vapors and have needed medical attention. Workers reported symptoms such as difficulty breathing, nose bleeds, severe headaches, coughing, tremors and rapid heartbeat.

“Communication between the contractors out here is horrible. We’ve had enough of it and are going to hold their feet to the fire. We’ve been complaining about it for years,” said Rumsey. “We never want anyone to be put in harm’s way. We said, 'Until you start telling us what’s going on, we’re not going in there.' We’re making them prove to us what they’re doing to protect us.”

Stop work actions can be initiated by any Hanford employee. It is considered a duty and a responsibility to do so when a worker believes conditions are a threat to workers or the public.

Rumsey said most workers are reluctant to call a work stop for fear of retaliation from their employers. He said there two conditions must be met to lift the order: The first is a series of  presentations for MSA workers led by WRPS staff and designed to disseminate correct and timely information about the vapor incidents. These briefings began on Monday, Rumsey said.

The second condition is to put in place an improved process for overall communications at the site.

“WRPS and MSA managers are cooperating with us, and I feel fairly optimistic we can work out a favorable resolution, but it’s going to take a few days,” said Rumsey.

Another Hanford employee said MSA workers are critical to cleanup operations at Hanford.“If you don’t have crane crews, you don’t really have a job going,” said the Hanford source. “Crane crews are one of the most important resources we have. So for them to be out of the tank farm is a really big deal.”

WRPS said Tuesday that a total of 25 workers have received a medical evaluation, including a worker who reported no symptoms but who requested a check up because he had been working in the part of the Hanford Site where other workers were affected.

The company also said it had identified several possible sources for the vapor emissions and has taken action.

WRPS President Dave Olson sent an email to workers on Tuesday saying the company will reinstitute a Chemical Vapors Safety team and considers actions to improve hazard analysis, controls and response.

"Your safety is my primary concern as we cope with these events.  I will remain personally involved in the actions needed to improve chemical vapor safety in the tank farms," Olson wrote in the email.

Related stories:

March 26: 17 Hanford workers sickened by chemical vapors

March 25: Nearly a dozen Hanford employees sick from unknown vapors

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