BWXT Pantex: Staying Safe in the Extreme

Think about keeping 3,300 employees on a 16,000-acre site with approximately 700 buildings safe. Now, think about doing it while those employees are dismantling nuclear weapons, and you can appreciate Gregory Welch's job.

Welch, the safety and industrial hygiene department manager for BWXT Pantex in Amarillo, Tex., is deservedly proud of the safety process at his company. Despite the potentially devastating hazards present at the site, the company has adopted a philosophy called “Incident Free,” which emphasizes zero incidents and a commitment to a “best-in-class” safety process. As a result, the safety performance at BWXT Pantex has improved even as weapons maintenance and dismantlement requirements have increased.

The safety and health process at Pantex is based on the Department of Energy's Integrated Safety Management (ISM) model. “The ISM model covers the entire work cycle, from work initiation to lessons learned,” says Welch. “Only by planning throughout the life cycle of a project and by learning from it at the end can continuous improvement be achieved.”

The basis of the model is that there are shared and adaptive operational assumptions (strategies)that an organization will develop as it learns to cope with and overcome challenges. Assumptions that are found to work well and are considered valid are taught to all employees — new and long-time — as the correct way to identify operational challenges, effectively approach and manage the situation and return operations to an acceptable and, often, improved state.

“The BWXT Pantex organizational culture operates on the basis that our employees remain focused on safety and securely operating the plant with the utmost levels of quality and environmental management in mind, whether conditions are considered normal or adverse, and to ever-increasing standards of personal accountability,” says Welch. “In short, our organizational culture is one of continued safe operations and personal safety accountability in an environment that promotes the personal well-being and health of each Pantex employee, the public and the environment.”

To do so, he adds, requires Pantex employees to remain cognizant and appreciative of “the special characteristics and the unique hazards associated with the operational technologies routinely encountered at Pantex,” including nuclear weapons, weapon components, concentrations of explosions, special nuclear materials, energized systems and industrial machinery.

“Due to the nature of our business, safety is our top priority,” says Welch. “Our strategic plan reflects this priority.”

The company's strategic plan calls for “providing work sites where workers believe their personal safety is a priority, and where there is the knowledge that the company truly cares about their safety and health.” The plan also notes: “Involving all employees in the safety process, work planning and issues related to change demonstrates care for their ideas and input.”

BWXT Pantex provides employees with a number of ways to provide input into the safety process. In addition to active safety committees and a formal training/mentoring program, employees can call a safety hotline with concerns and are assured of follow-up by Welch's department within 24 hours. In addition, for those employees who do not feel comfortable going to management with concerns, there are union safety representatives who work closely with management personnel to ensure that safety programs are successfully implemented.

Finally, any employee can stop work on a project if he or she feels conditions are not safe. Welch says such a stop-work happened this summer. Workers were operating material handling equipment, such as forklifts, in a warehouse and the air conditioning broke down. The outside temperature was 98 degrees with high humidity and conditions in the warehouse quickly deteriorated. One worker finally called for a shut down. Senior management told him, “You did the right thing,” and the employees did not resume working in the warehouse until the air conditioning was fixed.

“A safety-conscious work environment in which employees have the freedom to raise operational concerns without fear of retribution is but one example of a measurable and proven safety attribute effective in establishing an organizational culture that focuses on safe operations,” says Welch.

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