Thursday, February 26, 2004

Scandal at Hanford: And Workers Pay The Price

This is a federal nuclear facility, the United States of America, 2004
  • Bonuses given to the contractor (C2HM HIll) to empty nuclear and chemical waste tanks faster.

  • Nuclear Cleanup Contractors given an incentive to minimize the number of workdays lost to employee injuries.

  • Employee Medical Center director instructs clerks to alter patient records to show that a workers' injuries were not related to work.

  • Environmental monitoring conducted after toxic gasses have dispersed.

  • Workers harrassed and fired for requesting protective respirators and complaining about safety conditions.

Steve Lewis became a seething malcontent after a visit to the doctor who presides over the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

Lewis, an electrician, had been exposed to a blast of ammonia vapor from Hanford's underground "tank farms." Down on these farms during the Cold War, as federal workers churned out plutonium for the U.S. nuclear arsenal, they buried the largest haul of high-level nuclear waste in the Western Hemisphere. Lewis is part of another generation of Hanford workers that for more than a decade has been mopping up the festering mess.

His vapor exposure, which occurred in January 2002, flushed his face red and burned his lungs. Four months later, he had headaches and nosebleeds and was gagging on phlegm. He went to see Larry Smick, Hanford's acting medical director, who diagnosed Lewis's complaint as a preexisting condition: "Allergic disease likely making him more sensitive to irritant vapors at work," according to the doctor's handwritten notes.

Lewis was incredulous. He had never had allergies. He said he tried repeatedly during the exam to get the doctor to talk about chemical exposure out at the tank farms, but Smick would only talk allergies.

"Quite honestly, that is when my bubble popped," said Lewis, 51. "I could live with injury because these things do happen. I was not an angry employee up until they started trying to convince me that I hadn't been injured."

This is not from some new best-selling novel or an updated "Silkwood-type" movie. This is a startling Washington Post article about what has actually been happening at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State, one of the most contaminated pieces of earth in the world, where employees, working for private contractors hired by the Department of Energy, labor to empty highly toxic tank farms, leftovers from the cold war.

But this article not just for the atrocities committed at Hanford. While you're reading it, think of the New York Times series on McWane Corporation and the later series on workplace deaths that go largely unpunished. Think about the more than 5,000 workers who die in this country every year without the Washington Post or the New York Times noticing. Think about how injury and illness rates in this country fall every year, and then re-read the section about how the Hanford medical clinic has been changing patients' records so that their injuries and illnesses appear non-work-related.

This is America in 2004, not 1904. And far from being antiquated relics of a pre-civilized past, strong and well-enforced health and safety regulations, credible whistleblower protections and strong, active labor unions are needed today more than ever.

Instead we have our "regulatory" agencies being defanged and transformed into educational associations whose success is measured by how many "alliances" it can form with industry associations. We have our courts being filled with judges who believe that companies can only be found guilty of hurting or killing workers if they're found with a smoking gun and blood on their hands. We have a federal government that is showing corporate America the way by weakening its own unions and making it more difficult for all unions to represent their members effectively. Our White House and Congress is controlled by members and lobbyists who argue that the only "sound" science is that which justifies their arguments that all science that shows a connection between work and health is suspect, and the "invisible hand" of the economy is the best protection that workers can possibly have.

Because, as every company owner says after killing one of his workers: "Our employees are our most important resource."

And as OSHA says at the end of every press release, "Safety and health add value to business, the workplace and life."

Yeah, tell it to DOE, tell it to C2HM Hill, tell it to all the sick workers, tell it to all of the workers who aren't with us anymore, tell it to their kids and their spouses.

We have an election coming up. And it shouldn't be about gay marriage or who looks best endowed in a flight suit. There are real life-and-death problems to address, not just in Iraq, and not just at our airports, but in every workplace in this country.

We have a chance to throw the bums out. It won't fix everything, but at least we'll be heading in the right direction. Let's do it.