Reflections on Hanford Safety Culture

By: Audrey Frey

If you attended the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB) public hearing on August 26, you might have left with the impression that all is well with the safety culture at Hanford. After all, nearly every public commenter with the exception of Hanford Challenge’s own Tom Carpenter and intern Timothy Feth expressed variations of the same, upbeat message: The safety culture at Hanford might have been bad three years ago, but today things are looking much, much better. Here are a few examples:

Steve Young, Mayor of Kennewick: “From my observations, things have really changed over the past two years. Concerned employees and whistleblowers seem to have pretty much disappeared. What we see now are legacy cases from the past which are now making the news as they are brought to closure.”

Gary Petersen, vice president of the Tri-City Development Council (TRIDEC): “Progress is being made, safety is of prime importance throughout the site, and employees who may have safety or other concerns are being heard. The mantra of whistleblowers has in essence disappeared over the last three years because ORP (U.S. Department of Energy Office of River Protection) and BNI (Bechtel National, Inc.) leadership have created an atmosphere where issues are brought forward openly, discussed openly, and brought to the resolution that is satisfactory to the employees.”

Pam Larsen, Executive Director of Hanford Communities: “My impression from friends and acquaintances who work at WTP (Waste Treatment Plant) is that the culture is healthy. There are a number of organizations that seem to love negative press about Hanford. We have found this frustrating and distracting from the important issues that need to be discussed. There is much more cleanup to be accomplished. We look forward to continued public dialogue about this work remaining, not just the issues that generate headlines designed to sell papers, garner donations, and scare the heck out of the public.”

Jean St. Pierre, Independent Consultant for the Nuclear Industry, representing himself, (Background: part of an independent team asked by Bechtel 18 months ago to assess Bechtel’s Management Improvement Plan and Corrective Action Program): “To have positive change of this magnitude, the leadership of Bechtel and the Department of Energy ORP should be commended. In all my experiences both domestically and internationally, I’ve been hard pressed to find a comparable example of such rapid change.”

Hanford Challenge legal intern, Tim Feth, comments on broken safety culture at latest DNFSB meeting.
Hanford Challenge legal intern, Tim Feth, comments on broken safety culture at latest DNFSB meeting.

The rosy picture of safety culture painted by the community and business leaders who spoke at the public hearing on Wednesday is far from reality. Case in point: the Thursday before the DNFSB hearing, a concerned employee at the WTP leaked a suppressed DOE 2014 draft review entitled, “Low-Activity Waste Facility Design and Operability Review and Recommendations,” to Hanford Challenge, expressing a fear of retaliation in his message transmitting the document:

“I have worked at WTP for many years. I have been deeply concerned about the safety culture. It is not improved, it is the worst I have ever seen. Never in my long professional career have I seen anything that even resembles the deceit and lack of integrity that I have seen here. I have raised issues and solutions and in my opinion I have been retaliated against. As an engineer, it is my job to fix things, but under the current environment that is not possible without risking my livelihood and further retaliation. I apologize for the obscurity of this email, but if it were found out that I were even thinking about telling the truth, or bringing up these issues, I would be looking for another job. I have been waiting for months for the DOE to issue this report, but this upcoming public meeting has prompted me to get the word out. I am disappointed in the lack of transparency and leadership that the DOE has demonstrated in this regard. Some of the issues, if not resolved, will result in millions of dollars of cost to the taxpayer, and could possibly result in injuries to the future workers. This is simply unacceptable. I wish we had a culture that would allow me to talk freely and openly.”

The anonymous Hanford employee who wrote this message would clearly disagree with those at the DNFSB hearing who stepped forward and proclaimed that the safety culture at Hanford has improved.

When even one person like this anonymous Hanford employee exists, it is absurd for business and community leaders like Mayor Steve Young of Kennewick to announce that “concerned employees and whistleblowers seem to have pretty much disappeared” and imply that whistleblower cases are a thing of the past. Using the phrase “legacy cases” to refer to whistleblowers who were terminated from their jobs at Hanford less than two years ago is equally absurd and problematic. Cases from two to four years ago are hardly ancient history.

Whistleblowers, like Shelly Doss, are in the forefront of the fight for improved safety culture at DOE facilities.
Whistleblowers, like Shelly Doss, are in the forefront of the fight for improved safety culture at DOE facilities.

Walter Tamosaitis, PhD, former scientist and manager in charge of overseeing the project to chemically mixed sludge and tank waste at the WTP, was fired for raising safety concerns in October 2013. Donna Busche, former manager for Environmental and Nuclear Safety at Hanford, was fired for raising safety concerns in February 2014. After Shelly Doss, a former Environmental Specialist at Hanford, filed an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) complaint of retaliation for raising safety concerns against her employer, Washington River Protection Solutions (WRPS), a DOE Contractor at the Hanford site, the OSHA investigator found in her favor. These cases are very much relevant today.

Using the phrase “legacy case” and other similarly dismissive terms to refer to any past whistleblower case—whether from two years ago or ten years ago—is problematic because it reveals a lack of understanding or respect for the important check-and-balance function that whistleblowers serve in keeping safety culture healthy. The current treatment of past whistleblower cases is an important indicator of the safety culture at Hanford today.

In order for overall safety culture to improve, current leaders cannot treat past whistleblower cases dismissively. If DOE and its contractors want to improve safety culture at Hanford, they have to understand that how they resolve and treat “legacy” whistleblower cases speaks volumes to current employees about how they will likely be treated if they raise safety concerns. Thus, speaking positively and affirmatively about the important role whistleblowers play would be a step in the right direction, but only if supported by meaningful action to prevent retaliation against workers that raise safety concerns.

Needless to say, termination followed by a long, drawn-out legal battle with an uncertain outcome is not exactly an inspiring prospect for a Hanford employee who wants to raise safety concerns. With whistleblower stories still entering the news, potential whistleblowers are no doubt acutely aware that Hanford whistleblowers pay a heavy price beyond economic loss in damage to their careers and reputation in the Tri-Cities. Consequently, the news coverage generated by past whistleblower cases likely inspires as much fear in employees of retaliation as it does hope for restitution.

For example, Shelly Doss was terminated in 2011 but did not reach settlement until 2015. Walter Tamosaitis first raised safety concerns in 2011, was retaliated against through reassignment, was fired in 2013, and did not reach settlement until 2015. Donna Busche was fired in 2014, and her case is still open.

Without any indication of meaningful action taken by DOE to address these patterns of retaliation and fix the safety culture at Hanford, what incentives do whistleblowers have to speak up? Even settlements are bittersweet without meaningful change in safety culture by DOE and its contractors.

Unfortunately, to date, DOE efforts to improve safety culture have been more talk than action. Numerous DOE memos, trainings, workshops, and surveys in the name of safety culture have not resulted in any noticeable positive change at Hanford. In September 2013, Secretary of Energy Moniz issued a memo promising more protection for whistleblowers. However, Tamosaitis and Busche were both fired after the memo was issued. After Tamosaitis’ termination, DOE failed to independently assess the circumstances of his termination, as required under the DNFSB 2011-1 recommendation.

Similarly, after Busche’s termination in February 2014, DOE contractors refused to cooperate with a Secretary-directed Office of the Inspector General (OIG) investigation into the circumstances of her termination. When OIG was forced to drop the case without conclusion, there were zero consequences to the contractors for failing to follow contract requirements and the law.

In the meantime, there have been two Senate hearings into the terminations of both Tamosaitis and Busche, and three new OSHA decisions on behalf of four other Hanford whistleblowers, all in the past two years, and all of which found validation for the whistleblowers.

With this series of events still fresh, it is clear that whistleblower concerns have not abated and that safety culture has not improved. Actions speak louder than words. Although DOE, its contractors, and many in the Hanford community are currently singing praises about the turnaround in safety culture on site, DOE has not yet addressed the underlying deficiencies in the safety culture at Hanford that continue to lead to whistleblower terminations.

Only Hanford employees can speak authoritatively about whether safety culture on site has improved, and employee voices were absent at the DNFSB hearing. The DNFSB failed to invite any testimony from whistleblowers, their representatives, DOL investigators, or anyone else that might balance the testimony by the DOE panel on safety culture. During the public comment period, employee voices were also absent. Here’s a grim thought: perhaps this time around they were too fearful of retaliation to speak  up.

You can view the video of the DNFSB hearing at https://livestream.com/accounts/11470777/events/4280226 and find more information about the hearing at www.dnfsb.gov.

Audrey Frey is a law student (3L) at the University of Washington and a legal intern with Hanford Challenge.

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