House Republicans threaten nuclear worker safety

The following is crossposted from AFL-CIO Now.

The pretreatment facility at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Richland. (DOE photo)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Some of the most hazardous job sites for workers in the nation are the U.S. Department of Energy’s nuclear weapons facilities. But House Republicans are pushing extreme proposals in the Defense Authorization bill to deregulate worker safety and allow employers self–regulation and self-oversight — even at the most hazardous facilities.

The House is expected to begin debate on the bill today (May 16) and vote by the end of the week.

While nuclear weapons facilities are hazardous for workers, over the years, the Energy Department and workers’ unions have improved safety and health protections and oversight at these facilities. DOE’s Office of Health, Safety and Security has set radiation and beryllium exposure standards that are far more stringent than those set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and strengthened enforcement.

But the Republican-authored Defense Authorization bill would move the responsibility for worker safety at nuclear weapons plants — most operated by private companies under contact to the Energy Department — from the agency to the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which has no experience in occupational safety and health.

The bill not only would shift the entire safety and health program to the NNSA, it would eliminate current Energy Department worker health and safety standards and enforcement — including fines and other penalties for violations — and replace them with weaker standards and “performance” based oversights.

In addition, the Republican bill strips workers of their protection against employer retaliation for reporting safety concerns and takes away their rights to be involved in workplace inspections. The bill also eliminates any requirement that employers record and report injuries and illnesses.

The collaboration between the Energy Department and workers’ unions has helped reverse the weapons facilities’ long history of radioactive and toxic waste contamination and worker exposures that have resulted in thousands of cases of cancer and beryllium disease and cost the government and taxpayers billions of dollars for in compensation for environmental damage.

In a letter to House Armed Services Chairman Howard McKeon, AFL-CIO Government Affairs Director William Samuel says:

The adoption of the House Armed Services provision would turn back the clock and allow a return to the conditions and practices that caused these disasters.

► ALSO May 16 in the Tri-City Herald — HAMTC worries bill could erode Hanford nuclear safety — Hard-won safety protections for Hanford workers could be lost under a bill the U.S. House may consider today, according to the Hanford Atomic Metal Trades Council. However, Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., disagrees that the bill would affect Hanford.

► ALSO May 17 at — Ring the alarm: Hanford’s lack of a nuclear safety culture — An ominous pattern is emerging at the Hanford nuclear reservation. In the last seven months two veteran managers have filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Labor alleging that too many safety shortcuts are being taken in the creation of a complex to deal with Hanford’s nuclear waste. The two join an existing federal lawsuit by a third high-ranking manager.

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