At the most contaminated worksite in America – the Hanford Nuclear Reservation near Richland – observers could assume workers don every necessary protective device, including breathing masks similar to what firefighters use.

But that’s not the way it always works at Hanford. In many locations at the 586-square-mile facility, wearing the highest criteria of protective gear, known as self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), is optional. It’s up to the workers to decide if they’d like to upgrade to this level of protection to ensure they’re free from possible exposure to toxic chemical vapors that vent without warning from underground nuclear waste storage tanks.

After a rash of chemical vapor exposures in 2014, first reported by the KING 5 Investigators, one union decided to take a stand – all of its members would wear full SCBA on every job, every day at Hanford, whether or not the contractor in charge of the operations, Washington River Protection Solutions (WRPS), required it.

The union is the Local 598 Pipefitters, representing approximately 1,200 men and women who work at Hanford as plumbers, welders and pipefitters. The union's insistence on safety didn’t go over well. The gear is heavy, expensive to maintain and slows down the work. And meeting production deadlines is key for government contractors such as WRPS in order to be awarded lucrative bonuses from the U.S. Department of Energy, which owns Hanford.

(What is Hanford? Read up on its history and why workers are getting sick there.)

Union leaders said after they drew the line on safety, jobs that historically had been awarded to pipefitters suddenly went to other trades willing to execute the tasks without wearing SCBA.

“It’s unfortunate because people working out there are doing important tasks for the people of the Northwest and safety should be first,” said Pete Nicacio, who was the Local 598 business manager when the policy went into effect 18 months ago.

“Anyone who speaks up out there (at Hanford) about things that will slow down the project and will affect the pocketbook and bonuses of top executives, it’s going to be frowned upon," he said. "We had to decide, ‘Are we going to protect our members first? Or are we going to worry about jobs?’”

The union’s suspicion that they were being punished for insisting on safety turned to certainty when a document surfaced asking for bids on a lucrative contract at the site. The request for proposal from April 2015 was issued by a WRPS subcontractor, Federal Engineers & Constructors (FE&C), based in Richland. FE&C needed bids to upgrade exhaust systems in the AP Tank Farms, the location of eight double-shell underground tanks with the capacity of holding 1.1 million gallons of liquid nuclear waste each.

On page two of the request for proposal, the FE&C author wrote that getting the job done quickly was important to getting the award and that wearing SCBA would probably affect the schedule.

“FE&C is aware that current projects performed by the 598 Pipefitters union hall in other Tank Farm locations are volunteering to donn (sic) respiratory protection and greatly reducing production rates. Specify in your quote the estimated production rates for pipefitting activities and whether or not respiratory protection will be worn within th4e 241 AP Tank Farm, when procedurally not required. Proposals will be awarded based on technical ability, costs and deliverable timeframes,” wrote the FE&C Construction Manager.

The proposal was also signed by Erik Lau, the WRPS senior procurement specialist.

“(We were) shocked. Shocked that they would even put that in an RFP (request for proposal). When you’re requesting a bid from contractors and on the front page of your bid document you’re telling them if you use these people it’s going to cost you more….it just says there is a battle out there against the safety on workers and if they elect to upgrade (to SCBA) there’s going to be negative impacts and that’s what we’re dealing with now,” said Tim Still, the current Local 598 business manager.

Story of Pipefitter Jerry Ferson

Jerry Ferson is a pipefitter who worked at Hanford for 27 years. He suffers from several adverse health problems from exposure to chemical vapors. His most significant event occurred in 2007 when he was on a repair crew after a huge spill of nuclear waste. He spent a week making the repairs without wearing any protection whatsoever. During that time poisonous vapors from the spill blew into his workspace. That was 15 years after Hanford officials were well aware of the dangers posed to workers from vapors.

“I knew his life was in danger when he was in Viet Nam. I didn’t know his life was in danger when he was working at Hanford,” said Jerry’s wife Linda. “And we should have as a family been able to know those things were out there and could have happened and nobody told us anything.”

After the intense exposure in 2007, tests showed arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury in Ferson’s blood. Mercury can cause brain damage. Now he suffers from acute nerve damage, asthma, cirrhosis of the liver and chemical induced dementia from exposure to poisonous vapors at Hanford.

“(Hanford has) ruined (our lives). Totally ruined them,” said Linda Ferson.

Union officials said they believe their safety requirement cost them at least a dozen contracts with values in the millions of dollars. But the union leaders said they’re not backing down, and their efforts have garnered positive results, at least when it comes to worker health. In the first 18 months of the new policy, none of their members has been exposed to vapors. In May two pipefitters who were on a road outside of the tank farms did suffer a suspected exposure.

“If you don’t see it through it’s just going to continue to happen. You’re not going to change the culture and you’re not going to prevent people from being sick,” said Still.

WRPS said they couldn't comment for this report because of pending litigation.