DOE Orders Action to Ensure Worker Safety

DOE has mandated a series of actions to\r\nprotect worker safety and health after reviewing a report on an\r\naccident that exposed eight workers to plutonium.

Energy Secretary Bill Richardson ordered a series of actions to protect worker safety and health after reviewing a report on an accident that exposed eight workers to plutonium-238 at the department''s Los Alamos National Laboratory in March.

Richardson asked that actions be taken by the University of California, the department''s contractor at the lab, to address deficiencies that contributed to the accident.

"The Energy Department (DOE) is committed to the highest standards of safety and health for our workers at every site," said Richardson. "This accident evaluation indicates areas where the department as a whole needs to continue to improve, and I will push our contractors to make that happen."

The team of safety experts conducting the investigation determined the accident was preventable and that laboratory management missed opportunities to possibly prevent the accident by not fully implementing lessons learned from a similar event at the site in 1998.

The accident investigation team found that weaknesses in work planning, hazard analysis and the process by which changes to piping systems are controlled and documented contributed to the accident.

The plutonium release was caused when a worker distributed a loose pipe connection in a support system serving a glovebox, an airtight device in which plutonium and other hazardous materials can be handled safely by workers.

The pipe connection leaked because it was not tightened properly and because Teflon seals had deteriorated from the radioactive environment inside the glovebox.

Since the accident, laboratory management has taken a number of immediate actions, including inspecting, recording the locations of and correcting as necessary more than 40,000 pipe connections.

Richardson expanded on an earlier review directed at DOE sites managed by the National Nuclear Security Administration, by directing all of the department''s sites to report back to him by Aug. 31 on the following specific actions.

  • Inspect piping connectors in glovebox systems to ensure proper installation and maintenance.
  • Ensure that DOE''s Integrated Safety Management policy is applied to all potentially hazardous work, including routine activities.
  • Inspect Teflon components in radioactive environments, such as gloveboxes, on a regular basis to ensure they are performing correctly.

The accident investigation report is available at tis.eh.doe.gov/oversight and the health and safety alert issued following the accident is at tis.eh.doe.gov/docs/hha/hha_2000_1.pdf.

by Virginia Sutcliffe

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