Hanford safety 'stand down' after workers sick from vapors



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Posted on March 27, 2014 at 3:39 PM

Updated Monday, Mar 31 at 3:52 PM

The KING 5 Investigators have found that another Hanford worker was sickened by exposure to unknown vapors on Thursday afternoon in the area of the Hanford Site where underground nuclear storage tanks are housed. This brings to 18 the total number of employees who have needed medical care since last Wednesday due to the inhalation of toxic vapors.

Just prior to this latest incident the company in charge of all of the underground nuclear storage tanks at the site, Washington River Protection Solutions (WRPS), called a “stand down” of activity for all of their employees who work in what is known as the “tank farms”. That is approximately 200 workers. The work stoppage was called so that all employees could all be briefed on the series of vapor exposures since Wednesday, March 19. None of the WRPS dayshift employees are being allowed back into the tank farm areas today.

The person exposed to unknown fumes Thursday afternoon is a Health Physics Technician. She was outside performing routine surveys when she inhaled the potentially harmful vapors. She was transported to the onsite medical clinic at Hanford. The technician was accompanied by a colleague who was not affected. Sources tell KING neither was wearing respirators or other protective gear.

Late Thursday WRPS sent KING a statement about the recent exposure events. Read the entire statement here:

•    Washington River Protection Solutions (WRPS) managers met with employees Thursday in multiple briefings across the project to discuss recent actions aimed at identifying and mitigating potential sources of vapors at the Hanford tank farms.

•    Investigations in several tank farms have identified potential sources of vapor emissions.

o    In one farm, field investigations identified a cut in the insulation surrounding a pump pit as one potential source of vapor emissions. The cut was sealed with foam and the area was re-evaluated. Instruments no longer detect elevated levels of potential vapor-causing compounds in the local area.

o    In another tank farm, investigations identified liquid in old, unused equipment that had been staged for disposal as a potential source of emissions. It has been cordoned off as a Vapor Control Zone. The liquid is being sampled and analyzed.

o    Evaluations in a third farm where vapors-related symptoms were experienced found no detectable measurement of vapors-causing compounds.

•    Investigations are ongoing to identify other potential sources of vapors in the tank farms.

•    Employees are encouraged to use additional protective gear—including respiratory devices—when the potential for chemical vapors exists.

•    In addition to these more recent activities, a joint management/employee Industrial Hygiene Technical Panel meets regularly to monitor efforts and help solve chemical vapor issues and concerns. Together, the team works to identify potential hazards and develop needed controls.

•    These efforts have allowed WRPS to keep tank farm worker exposure to chemical vapors far below occupational limits. While the risk cannot be completely eliminated, WRPS continues to look at ways the risk to employees can be reduced.

Jerry Holloway
Washington River Protection Solutions

Timeline of Events:
March 19 - Two WRPS workers inhaled a release of unknown chemicals in what’s called the AY-AZ tank area. Those employees returned to work but continue to receive medical care for persistent symptoms such as coughing, difficulty breathing, headaches and nosebleeds.
March 25 - Four more WRPS workers also working in the AY-AZ area inhaled fumes that made them sick.

March 25 - Two workers with expertise in investigating chemical releases went into the area to attempt to find the source when they too became ill. KING 5 has found they were not wearing protective gear such as respirators. The area was evacuated after the incident.
March 25 - Three more WRPS employees breathed in fumes approximately eight miles away in the S-SX tank area. It is not known what they inhaled, but two were transported to the hospital and one to the Hanford medical clinic.
March 26 – Three workers fell ill in yet another location at the Hanford site, at what’s called the T tank farm, about a quarter mile from the S-SX area. Sources tell the reporter 17 people were working on a video inspection when they were suddenly sickened by the release of vapors. Two were transported to the hospital and have been released yet sources say they continue to suffer from symptoms such as nausea and rapid heartbeat.

March 26 – Three non-WRPS workers report symptoms of vapor exposure. All were transported to the onsite medical facility and have been cleared to return to work.
March 27 – One WRPS employee got sick from vapor exposure in the AY farm area.

Chemicals that were used in the production of plutonium at Hanford from 1943 to 1989 are mixed with other wastes in the tanks and create vapors. At times the vapors exit the tanks through ventilation systems. Some workers have been critical of their employer, WRPS, for not installing enough safety mechanisms to prevent the exposures.

“They’re (WRPS) are not doing anything proactive right now to protect us. Nothing proactive, just reactive. The safety equipment needed is expensive,” said one WRPS employee.

A spokesperson for the company told KING “in recent years WRPS has taken a number of steps to reduce potential vapor exposures to its workers.”

Some of the 18 workers have been transported to Kadlec Medical Center in Richland for treatment. All have been released, but several continue to suffer from exposure symptoms including dizziness, nausea, headaches and chest pain.