By Dan Klepal
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Two nuclear safety reviews of the $4.4 billion cleanup of Fernald say workers believe safety takes a back seat to completing the job on time.
The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, a federal watchdog agency created by Congress, said in an Aug. 7 report that there have been five near-miss accidents in the last year that could have ended in death or environmental contamination.
Construction giant Fluor Daniel is supervising the nuclear cleanup at the site 18 miles north of Cincinnati for the U.S. Department of Energy, and the company stands to reap hundreds of millions in bonuses if deadlines are met.
The deadline for completion of the project was recently moved up from 2010 to 2006.
The agency's report said that the number of accidents, injuries and near misses at the site have increased, but did not give an exact number.
However, just last month, the government withheld $100,000 of $500,000 in bonus money from Fluor, citing repeated safety problems and near-miss accidents that occurred from April through June.
That deferral was a result of overhead work and falling equipment. It was the second such deferral for the company in the past year.
"While Fluor's upper management places a strong emphasis on safety, information from project safety and quality personnel in the field indicates that many project and field managers believe ... meeting the schedule is the top priority," the safety board report says. "The board believes the safety culture of the contractor's project and field management needs to be improved."
A team of officials from the DOE's Fernald field office will have to appear before the board in Washington within 90 days to outline safety plans they will use to fix the problems.
"Although Fluor conducts numerous safety reviews, it has apparently been slow to react to safety problems with its subcontractors," the report says. "DOE has also been slow to request officially that Fluor pay more attention to working with subcontractors to improve safety."
The DOE commissioned its own safety review in May that reached many of the same conclusions. While the DOE-commissioned report says there are no "urgent safety issues requiring immediate action," it concludes that workers in the field think deadlines trump safety.
"The team observed what is best described as an easy-going complacency about safety at the Fernald site," the DOE report says. "There was a widespread view among the workers interviewed that meeting schedules was management's top priority and that the level of safety at the Fernald site is good enough.
"The team attended a safety meeting which had to be stopped in the middle due to video difficulties and people falling asleep," the report says.
Lisa Crawford, president of the Fernald Residents for Environmental Safety and Health, which has been battling the government over the site for 19 years and won a class-action settlement of $73 million in 1989, said the reports are disturbing.
"If the workers are safe, the community feels safe," she said. "The last few years we've walked a fine line with safety. I understand the schedule is really important to them, but I don't give a damn if they walk out the door in 2006 or not. They need to get a handle on this."
The DOE report also says it is unclear why workers in the field think meeting the schedule is more important than safety, "but it was noted that the prime contract provides (financial) incentives for meeting schedules but not for meeting safety targets."
At least two former employees have filed complaints against Fluor, alleging they were fired for continually raising safety concerns that threatened to slow the cleanup.
But Jamie Jameson, president of Fluor Daniel subsidiary Fluor Fernald, said there is financial incentive for completing the job safely. If a worker is killed or the environment contaminated, the project will be shut down for an extended period of time. And that, he said, would make it impossible to complete the project by 2006 - and for the company to collect its incentive bonuses.
"Anyone on this project that feels that schedule is more important than safety, I'll wish them good luck on their next assignment," Jameson said. "We will not finish this job in '06 if it's not done safely."
Dave Kozlowski, former director of safety for the DOE at Fernald, said a team of about four DOE managers from the Ohio Field Office will travel to Washington and meet with the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board. Kozlowski was recently promoted to a supervisor position in the Office of Project Acceleration.
"Senior management is conveying a strong message of safety and of strong work performance," he said.
"I think that is not being carried through all of the sub-levels of management. Workers were not hearing that as a consistent message.
"But (Fluor has) taken several actions that are effectively conveying that focus,'' Kozlowski said, adding that employees involved in an accident now must meet with the company's president and their supervisor to talk about what caused the accident and what they could do differently.
The safety board report acknowledges several new plans to increase worker safety, including additional training, performance reviews and improvements in training of new employees.
"However,'' the report says, "the plan has many of the same elements as previous plans that have not resulted in the desired improvements in safety."
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