Fifty-three million gallons of radioactive waste lie buried beneath the ground within a 50-mile radius of Richland, Wash., and a mere 10 miles from the Columbia River. This highly radioactive, chemically toxic waste is stored in 177 underground storage tanks and accounts for 60 percent of the nation's entire volume of high-level radioactive waste.
If that isn't alarming enough, consider that the tanks have passed their intended period of use and many have leaked, sending contaminants within reach of groundwater and jeopardizing the health of the Columbia River. To protect the environment and the population of Richland, Wash., these tanks must be retrieved and the waste transferred to safer receptacles. But the toxic contents, which are the result of processing spent reactor fuel from the nation's nuclear weapons program, must be approached and handled with extreme care to protect workers' safety.
Enter CH2M Hill Hanford Group Inc., a defense contractor that works with and for the U.S. Department of Energy to retrieve these tanks and replace them with newer, double-shell tanks until the waste can be treated for permanent disposal. Throughout their work, employees must be protected from a range of occupational hazards: exposure to radiological materials, tank vapors, toxic chemicals, flammable gases, heat stress, confined spaces, ergonomic risks and more.
Despite these hazards, CH2M Hill maintains an impressive safety record. The company's success can be attributed in part to a comprehensive safety campaign and multi-faceted safety programs that have been implemented since CH2M Hill took over the tank cleaning contract in 2004.
At the core of CH2M Hill's safety philosophy is the belief that employees are most productive when they are involved in the safety process.
“Workers are the most important experts in identifying hazards,” says Fran Ito, vice president of safety, health and quality. “We rely heavily on workers identifying hazards and proposing how those hazards can be mitigated.”
The company also institutes a stop-work authority, which Ito explains not only empowers employees to cease operations if a hazardous condition presents itself, but obligates them to do so. For such a system to work, Ito says employees must be confident they can safely stop work without facing adverse consequences. “That's a company priority,” he says.
To ensure workers feel comfortable addressing safety concerns, CH2M Hill hires a third-party consultant to conduct employee surveys to assess workers' impressions of the safety culture. Survey results found that 99 percent of employees would take action if they observe unsafe conditions.
When employees do have concerns, CH2M Hill is quick to act. Several years ago, when workers were concerned about the presence of simmering vapors, the company created a Vapor Solutions Act to investigate the threat of hazardous vapors. This initiative helped management determine the best PPE and safe work practices to protect employees and alleviate concerns. CH2M Hill also instituted a buddy system so employees could assist each other in putting on self-contained breathing apparatuses, which reduced injury and strain.
Nothing Left to Chance
Since CH2M Hill took over the contract 3 years ago, it has cut reportable events by 50 percent, has had no reportable lockout/tagout events in the last 2 years and has reduced clothing and skin contamination by 75 percent. The company maintains a total recordable case rate of less than one case per 200,000 hours worked.
The company's comprehensive approach to workplace safety includes five safety councils and a host of programs that address issues including ergonomics, wellness, mentoring, safety auditing, electrical hazards, heat stress, chemical vapors, traffic and even insect bites. Clearly, the company isn't willing to chance its workers' well-being.
CH2M Hill employees managed to retrieve one toxic tank in 2004. Today, the company has retrieved seven tanks with three more in progress. Thanks to CH2M Hill's commitment to involving workers in the safety process, the toxic waste is being cleaned up in the safest way possible to ensure employees can go home every day with their health intact.