A series of vapor inhalation incidents at the Hanford site this year is raising questions about the safety measures workers are required to adhere to when performing tasks at the massive nuclear waste facility.

In the past six weeks, 28 workers reported being exposed to sudden releases of unknown chemical vapors from various underground nuclear waste tanks. Twenty of them were transported to Hanford’s on-site medical clinic after experiencing symptoms; six others were transported to a Richland hospital. Their symptoms included difficulty breathing, coughing up blood, nose bleeds, a burning lung sensation and headaches. Many of the incidents resulted in temporary evacuations of large parts of the tank farms.

The vapors come from the millions of gallons of radioactive and toxic waste stored in more than 150 aging carbon steel tanks at the site. Generated during 40 years of plutonium production, the waste is highly volatile -– with heat from radioactive decay releasing fumes tainted with a host of dangerous chemicals, from mercury to PCBs.

To ensure the storage tanks do not explode, the fumes are allowed to vent through filters that remove all traces of radiation. But the filters allow the chemical vapors to escape into the atmosphere where, if breathed in at sufficient concentrations, can cause serious physical harm.

Given the known hazards at Hanford, KING 5 was surprised to learn that workers are not always required to wear respirators or other equipment to protect their air supply. But more surprising is the long list of reports and studies KING 5 found dating back 22 years that warned Hanford managers about the need for better safety precautions at the site:

* A 1992 technical review done by the Department of Energy noted that “51 incidents of worker injury due to vapor inhalation” occurred at just three different Hanford tank farms between 1957 and 1989.

* Another 1992 report by the Department of Energy’s Office of River Protection concluded that workers on the site were poorly informed about safety matters. “While current Westinghouse [the contractor at that time] policy indicates personal protective equipment is required when ‘breaking containment’ on a specific tank, employee confusion is apparent regarding protection for other tank farm tasks.”

* A 1993 report from the Office of Technology Assessment (a now-defunct congressional research agency) included a quote from a former top OSHA official: “The failure of those in responsible management charge to assign resources to this (vapor exposure) problem in the presence of repeated violations, would, without any doubt, have been viewed by OSHA as willful violations of the [Occupational Safety and Health] Act and subject to possible criminal penalties…..The absence of high priority for solving this problem in 1990, with attendant lack of professional staff and resources could well put someone on trial for criminal behavior.”

* In 2003, a Harborview Medical Center expert wrote to Hanford’s managers after treating several vapor-exposed workers: “I would recommend the use of supplied-air respiratory protection for employees working in close proximity to these tanks in the Farms [sic.]”

* A 2004 scientific paper by a toxicologist with experience at the Hanford site stated clearly: “The only method of protecting the tank workers from tank vapor exposure, that is technologically feasible, is to require the tank workers to use supplied-air respiratory protection.”

* The CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health concluded in 2004 that Hanford “Workers have not been routinely provided PPE [personal protection equipment] for exposure to tank vapors and there are difficulties in the process to get a respirator.”

Workers exposed in the last six weeks told KING 5 that the culture at Hanford hasn’t changed much when it comes to using respirators on the tank farms.

Steve Ellingson was out of work for weeks after he was exposed to vapors on March 19. He said Hanford managers would prefer that workers not wear masks or respirators.

“A lot of people want to wear them and are discouraged from wearing them. … Getting masks means filling out a lot of paperwork. All of that takes time and money,” he said.

“And it really burns me up,” said Tom Carpenter of the Seattle-based watchdog group Hanford Challenge. “It makes me very angry that after all these years workers are not given free and easy access to supplied air. I think it should be required.”

Carpenter helped write a 2003 report for the watchdog Government Accountability Project that concluded: “In the face of repeated worker complaints of vapor odors and adverse health effects, CHG’s [the contractor at that time] failure to require basic respirator use and refusal to allow employees to wear skin protecting or supplied air respirators upon request is egregious conduct and may constitute ‘knowing endangerment’ under federal and Washington State law.”

Respiratory safety gear voluntary

Hanford managers told KING 5 that worker safety is a top priority. Kevin Smith, head of the Office of River Protection, told an audience in Seattle on April 15 that “workers have the ability to upgrade into full respirators any time they want.”

And at a public forum in Richland on Tuesday night, Smith said ORP is looking at “all options” to keep workers safe, including making respiratory protection mandatory. He added that Hanford managers are more focused on putting in controls so the vapors don’t enter the tank farms in the first place.

The company that manages Hanford’s tank farms, Washington River Protection Solutions (WRPS), issued a statement earlier this month that said the use of masks, respirators, and supplied air tanks, similar to what firefighters routinely wear, is voluntary at most places at Hanford because the risk of serious consequences from vapor exposure is low.

“Respiratory protection is provided to workers who want the added protection even if not required to safely perform the duties. In the case of chemical vapors, tank farm worker exposure remains far below applicable occupational levels for chemicals of potential concern,” wrote a WRPS spokesman.

The company also noted that all of the workers who reported being exposed were quickly cleared to return to work by the government contractor that operates Hanford onsite medical facility.

Still living with effects of 2003 exposure

KING 5 also spoke with John Swain, a former Hanford worker who was exposed to vapors on the job a decade ago. He receives permanent disability payments because of the exposures. To this day, he suffers from asthma, nerve damage and permanent brain damage.

He said he used to believe Hanford motto – “where safety comes first.” But after his experience, he said: “I found out different. Totally different. It’s not what they’re saying it is…I feel very betrayed because they always said the most important part of this company is the workforce.”

Swain had a message for Hanford managers who have failed to implement recommended worker safety improvements: “I wish that they could pump these vapors into the people’s offices who are making these decisions, and they would have a better understanding,” said Swain.