Hanford safety 'stand down' after workers sick from vapors

Hanford safety 'stand down' after workers sick from vapors

Credit: KING 5 News

Workers exhume contaminated materials at the Hanford Site.

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by SUSANNAH FRAME / KING 5 News

KREM.com

Posted on March 27, 2014 at 5:08 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.

“Data collection and analysis is underway in the affected (tank) farms to understand what happened and what might be done to reduce the likelihood of future occurrences,” said Jerry Holloway of WRPS.

On Wednesday, 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.

Six days later, on Tuesday, March 25, four more WRPS workers also working in the AY-AZ area inhaled fumes that made them sick. Immediately afterward, 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 appropriate protective gear such as respirators. The area was evacuated after the incident.

A few hours later Tuesday 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.

The next day, Wednesday, March 26, more 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 three were suddenly sickened by the release of vapors.

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 rapid heartbeat.

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