Questions persist

DOE report: Pressure to meet deadline has compromised safety at Flats

By TERJE LANGELAND

Colorado Daily Staff Writer

Monday, November 08, 1999

Last month, the main contractor at Rocky Flats announced it had met yet another "milestone" in cleaning up the former nuclear weapons plant south of Boulder.

The contractor, Kaiser-Hill, said key nuclear materials had been removed from Building 771, a plutonium facility scheduled for demolition.

"By expediting the elimination of special nuclear materials from this building, we are able to get more work done safely and with greater efficiency," a Kaiser-Hill news release proclaimed.

But what the release didn't mention was that according to representatives of the U.S. Department of Energy, which oversees site operations, the drive to expedite the removal may have contributed to what could have been a serious worker injury.

Two months earlier, as a worker tried to drain radioactive solutions from 771 on Aug. 11, radioactive nitric acid splashed on his protective clothing. A foreman had instructed the worker to open a valve from an incorrect location because it couldn't be opened from the location specified by procedure.

"Failure to follow procedures resulted in the (worker) becoming contaminated and could have resulted in a serious injury had the acid contacted his skin," a DOE incident report stated.

By most accounts, such accidents are bound to happen occasionally as workers proceed in earnest with the dangerous task of decontaminating and demolishing the aging facilities at Rocky Flats.

But what was remarkable about the Aug. 11 incident was an unusually candid statement that followed in the DOE report:

"DOE facility representatives believe that perceived pressure to complete work, combined with a number of newly hired workers, has resulted in a slow decline in proper conduct of operations at the facility," it read.

The statement seemed to support what critics have been saying for a long time: that as the DOE and its contractors rush to meet a 2006 deadline for closing Rocky Flats -- a goal considered unattainable by most observers -- worker safety may take a back seat.

"We're very concerned about it," said David Navarro, vice president of the United Steelworkers of America Local 8031, which represents some 1,400 workers at the site.

Mary Harlow, who tracks Rocky Flats issues for the city of Westminster, said concerns will likely grow as workers enter the hazardous demolition phase of the closure project, and as 2006 approaches.

"There's bound to be accidents," Harlow said. "There's bound to be a lot of accidents. I think we're just seeing the beginning, because they're pushing so hard."

Not by the numbers

Plant officials, meanwhile, say statistics don't support the notion that safety is declining. They acknowledge that the demolition work is inherently hazardous -- even more so than the plant's original mission of making nuclear-bomb components -- but say accident rates are low despite the increased dangers.

Official figures supplied by Kaiser-Hill indicate that recordable accidents, lost workdays and radiological violations have decreased steadily from three years ago, and have more or less held steady in recent months. This has happened despite a recent increase in the amount of work conducted at the site, said Jennifer Thompson, a Kaiser-Hill spokeswoman.

"We have not seen an increased amount of worker injuries," Thompson said. "The data does not support a recent decline in performance."

In fact, Rocky Flats' accident ratio is below the average for the construction industry in general, according to Thompson.

David Lowe, a deputy DOE manager on the site, said he's been impressed with Kaiser-Hill's performance based on statistical indicators.

"Over the last three to five years, there's been a reduction, a significant reduction, in indicators," Lowe said.

Asked to explain the DOE's own statement that hurrying work may have reduced safety in 771, Lowe said it was "the personal opinion of one person in the building."

Nonetheless, "We took that very seriously, that statement," Lowe emphasized. "Very seriously."

The DOE has responded by reassessing operations in 771 and other plutonium buildings, and will send a report to Kaiser-Hill recommending corrective actions, he said. He said the report was still being written.

"We found areas of weakness," he said. However, "I don't think we're finding a tremendous breakdown in the conduct of operations."

'Disturbing' deficiencies

Despite such assurances, a series of recent procedural violations and shortcomings at Rocky Flats have raised eyebrows at the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, a regulatory agency that oversees the DOE nuclear complex.

"We have noticed that, and it is of some concern to us," said John Conway, the board's chairman.

The safety board has reported that during a preparedness exercise last May, the DOE concluded that "the contractor did not adequately demonstrate the ability to plan and execute a radiological drill." Specifically, in a simulated airborne-radiation accident, a "disturbing deficiency" was noted in personnel control as the plant failed to evacuate exposed workers.

In August, Kaiser-Hill shut down operations in the Building 776/777 plutonium complex due to "poor implementation" of safety controls, the safety board also reported. Shift managers for subcontractor Rocky Mountain Remediation Services exhibited "poor performance" during evaluations, and one shift manager disqualified himself from his duties rather than undergo a re-evaluation. Full operations had not yet resumed as of last week.

DOE and safety board reports also detailed safety lapses on July 12, July 28, Aug. 4, Aug. 12, Aug. 24, Sept. 21 and Sept. 27. Two cases involved plutonium that was either improperly stored or not accounted for. In one case, personnel failed to properly monitor an emergency backup generator. In another case, improper storage of a battery caused a small fire.

"Every one of these instances are things that should not have happened," Lowe acknowledged.

However, follow-up reports indicate that Kaiser-Hill and its subcontractors have addressed lapses and improved on many identified weaknesses.

Thompson said Kaiser-Hill takes "each and every incident very seriously." She pointed out that many of the reported safety problems were identified in management reviews, conferences and exercises -- demonstrating that the processes for preventing actual mishaps are working.

"The fact that the problems are identified in these processes is a good thing, and it means that problems can be avoided further down the road when the work actually takes place," Thompson said.

Rocky Flats spokesman Pat Etchart said the fact that the DOE shut down operations in 776 demonstrates its commitment to safe operations.

"We're not going to compromise safety," Etchart said.

Plant officials have also repeatedly emphasized that it's in Kaiser-Hill's financial interest to reduce accidents, because the company loses bonuses if accident rates are too high.

"There's significant penalties if the people get hurt," Lowe said.

'Seductive drug'

Navarro, meanwhile, said incentives to accelerate the closure project tend to override the safety incentives.

Kaiser-Hill and DOE are trying to meet a deadline that hardly anyone else -- not even the congressional General Accounting Office -- believes they can meet. DOE officials say they must try to prove the skeptics wrong, because if they don't meet the deadline, congressional support for the $657-million-a-year closure project may be in jeopardy.

To speed up work, DOE awards Kaiser-Hill performance bonuses based on whether the company meets project "milestones" negotiated for each fiscal year. The awards are based on an all-or-nothing principle, Navarro said, so when the end of each fiscal year approaches, it leads to a "feeding frenzy around the clock, at the 11th hour." In these situations, workers are often forced or enticed to work long hours, which reduces safety, Navarro said.

"The performance bonuses, in my mind, are the greatest hazard," Navarro said.

Workers are easily tempted to work overtime because they know their jobs will be gone in a few years, he said.

"Folks are trying to work to earn every penny they can, to try to save for the job cut," Navarro said. "It's a very seductive drug."

It doesn't help that Rocky Flats is experiencing a worker shortage, Navarro said. He estimated the plant is short about 300 workers, although Lowe said he believed the number was lower.

The plant's Conduct of Operations protocol does limit the number of hours people can work. But last fall, Kaiser-Hill changed the language in the document. Where it previously had stated that workers "shall" not work in excess of specified hours, the new version used the word "should."

"They changed it from 'shall' to 'should' so they could circumvent it," Navarro said.

No one told the union, which didn't discover the change until last March, he said. The union protested, and the change was reversed.

Thompson, when first asked, said she didn't consider the word substitution a big deal.

"They're the same word; it's just a different tense," Thompson said. "They mean the same thing. ... Probably, some copy editor changed it."

She said the union appeared to be "quibbling over a very small point." Besides, "we've changed it back, so I'm not sure what your questions is there," she added.

In a subsequent response, however, Thompson said the language had been changed "to match the Department of Energy Order which is the driver for the site document."

Complaint says doctors pressured

Navarro said the change was just another example of Kaiser-Hill and its subcontractors trying to get around measures designed to protect workers.

To keep from losing safety bonuses, he said, managers will pressure workers into not reporting accidents.

"There's so much, what I'd call harassment," Navarro said. "It gets to the point where our people, when they have an injury, they don't want to report it."

Last January, the union filed a complaint alleging that management was trying to pressure medical personnel into downgrading the diagnoses of injured workers.

"Management personnel is coercing, intimidating and harassing medical staff and patients," the complaint stated.

Kaiser-Hill had already launched an investigation based on similar allegations by the plant's Occupational Medicine Center. Investigators concluded that physicians did feel pressure from certain subcontractors to issue verbal work restrictions rather than document them.

Interviews also indicated that "some companies directly pressured supervisors to keep restrictions verbal," investigators wrote.

The practice of rewarding the contractor for low accident rates "can lead to underreporting of injuries, rather than injury prevention," they further noted.

However, the investigators concluded that there was "no objective evidence" that health and safety managers directly pressured physicians.

Navarro called the in-house investigation a "whitewash."

"They've had guys who were on crutches that they paid to come out here and sit in an office," to avoid reporting lost workdays, he asserted.

Is sooner better?

In interviews, plant officials repeatedly emphasized that safety is a top priority. Workers are not expected to perform any tasks if they feel unsafe, Etchart said.

"Any single worker that feels something is not safe, they have the authority to stop the work," Etchart said.

"That's of course the company line," replied Navarro. "And the fact is, it's totally untrue."

Navarro said workers have been taken off projects after raising objections.

Etchart said that if that's true, "that should not be the case."

Lowe said the plant has mechanisms in place for investigating whether such practices occur.

"I know of no cases where that has been proven to be the case," Lowe said.

Lowe said there's no inherent contradiction in aiming for the ambitious 2006 goal while trying to do work as safely as possible. The longer you allow buildings to deteriorate, the more dangerous it becomes to demolish them, he explained.

"In the long term, you have a tremendous risk reduction" by accelerating work, Lowe said. "Just slowing down work doesn't necessarily mean you're putting the work in a safer condition."