FERMCO accused of intimidation

Company ignored safety, workers say

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Union leaders representing workers at Fernald say the company cleaning up the site is pressuring them to lie about safety conditions.

Leaders of the Fernald Atomic Trades & Labor Council (FATLC) says the company has tried to get their signatures on a letter that says the site is being run safely.

''Signing that letter would amount to a lie and we won't do it,'' said FATLC President Robert Schwab. ''The company has now started blaming the workers for management foul-ups. We have proof of serious safety problems at Fernald, and it will be given to federal investigators.''

And despite FERMCO's assertions that it puts safety first at Fernald, said Gene Branham, FATLC's vice president, ''the facts say otherwise.''

One example, he said, was FERMCO's efforts ''to eliminate the stringent safety language the (FATLC) has fought years to get put into our contract to protect our workers. We had to go to federal court to force FERMCO to leave it in place. That's how much they care about safety.''

Mr. Schwab said examples of what he considers the Fernald Environmental Restoration Management Co.'s (FERMCO) disregard for workers' safety include:

Providing workers with ill-fitting or torn radiation protective clothing.

Eliminating advanced training in handling radioactive materials for most subcontractor employees.

Going to court to try to eliminate longtime worker safety guarantees.

Refusing to immediately remove and repack leaky barrels of radioactive and toxic waste.

The FATLC represents 13 international unions and more than 700 FERMCO workers at the former uranium-processing plant northwest of Cincinnati.

''There are many ongoing safety problems that are endangering the workers at Fernald, and we will not be a party to trying to cover them up,'' said Mr. Branham. ''And the Energy Department is not being the watchdog it's supposed to be.''

Mr. Schwab said the letter FERMCO officials have been pressuring the FATLC to sign is part of the company's attempt to cover up safety problems at the site.

''FERMCO wants that signed letter so they can send it to the senators and congressmen and also federal investigators to say, 'Hey, see, everything is OK here.' But that's a lie and we have refused to sign it,'' said Mr. Schwab.

Mr. Schwab said FERMCO officials recently approached union officials to sign the letter, and when they refused, FERMCO warned that the company could end ''the good communication'' that had developed between the two sides. Mr. Schwab said he considered the comments a threat.

In what Mr. Branham said is another effort at intimidation, the company has issued notices to workers saying they should notify their supervisors before talking with federal investigators about conditions at the site.

The U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) - Congress' investigative arm - has begun an investigation of reports of serious financial mismanagement and safety problems identified in a series of Enquirer stories that began Feb. 11.

''The employees are not required to notify FERMCO that they want to talk to the GAO,'' Mr. Branham said. ''This is just the company's way of trying to intimidate the workers.''

Twenty-two subcontractor employees currently working at Fernald told The Enquirer they have seen various safety problems on their respective job sites, but their FERMCO supervisors either warned them to keep quiet about them or risk being replaced. The workers, who requested anonymity, said subcontractor employees keep quiet to save their jobs.

Workers interviewed told of being forced to wear ill-fitting or sometimes torn radiation protective clothing; having to reuse respirator filter cartridges already used by other employees; and being assigned to work in radiation-contaminated areas without the proper protective clothing.

''There is an ongoing coverup at Fernald by FERMCO to hide these problems from not only the public, but from Energy Department officials in Washington and investigators from the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO),'' said Mr. Branham.

The GAO was called in last month, by U.S. Rep. Rob Portman, R-Cincinnati, and U.S. Senators Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, and John Glenn, D-Ohio.

The congressional leaders called for the independent investigation after a series of Enquirer articles began Feb. 11. The articles revealed that the Fernald cleanup has been marred by unauthorized spending, phony cost reports, excessive travel expenses, questionable severance packages and safety concerns.

''Because FERMCO has now come under scrutiny by federal investigators, company officials are trying to minimize problems and even resorted to blaming the workers for the company's own wrongdoing,'' said Mr. Branham. ''It is time to set the record straight.''

Another problem, Mr. Schwab said, is that FERMCO officials often try to blame workers for accidents at the site - including workers who have been exposed to radiation - incidents that many times the Energy Department later determines to be the fault of FERMCO management.

Addressing the FATLC leaders' criticisms, FERMCO officials, in a written response to The Enquirer, said: ''FERMCO believes the Fernald site is safe for workers and is committed to maintaining a safe work environment. FERMCO takes very seriously any reported safety violations. We will investigate any and all allegations pertaining to safety violations and take corrective actions as required.''

Energy Department officials, also responding in writing to questions about the FATLC's statements, said: ''The Department of Energy is committed to providing a safe working environment for its contractor work force. All safety-related issues identified by worker or contractor management are immediately addressed. At this time there are no outstanding or unresolved safety issues that have been brought to the attention of the Department of Energy.''

Workers detail dangers

Scores of union and subcontractor employees at Fernald provided The Enquirer with first-hand accounts detailing past and ongoing safety problems and with documents and photographs depicting numerous safety violations.

''Our documents, pictures and workers' eyewitness accounts confirm the problems,'' said Mr. Branham.

The Enquirer last week spoke to eight employees currently assigned to Plant 4, a building where radioactive duct work and equipment is being dismantled. All eight requested anonymity, citing fear of losing their jobs. The workers are employees of Babcock & Wilcox, a Lynchburg, Va., company hired for the Plant 4 job.

One woman who said she has worked in Plant 4 since February 1995 said, ''There are an awful lot of people who are getting contaminated in there (Plant 4). At least three times green salt (radioactive material) got in under my PCs (protective clothing) and onto my bra, underwear and on my skin. But I was told (by a radiation technician) to just wash up. One time, after I took a shower, he checked me again and said I was still a little 'hot,' but it was nothing to worry about and to go back to work. I have no way of knowing how bad a dose I got, and nobody ever wrote it up. They hardly ever do.''

Asked how she got contaminated, the woman said, ''They didn't have the right size PCs for me so I had to wear one that was too big. I taped it up like they said, but I guess I didn't tape it everywhere it needed to be. After I was contaminated one time, they tried to say it was my fault. But they still didn't write it up.''

Charles Lynch, vice president of Local 59 (Pipefitters & Plumbers) and a pipefitter at Fernald who also is on the 25-member Union - Management Safety Committee, said, ''We have workers constantly telling us they were contaminated and the company didn't write it up or threatened to blame them if they made a stink about it. This is how FERMCO deals with worker safety problems.''

The Energy Department's lack of oversight at Fernald allows FERMCO to violate safety rules, said Mr. Schwab. One example he cited is the department's failure to have an adequate number of, and qualified, personnel at the numerous cleanup project sites on a continual basis to ensure FERMCO's compliance with safety rules.

Union will provide evidence

Fernald workers will cooperate with the GAO and will provide investigators with ''documents, reports, photographs and first-hand accounts'' of numerous safety and management problems, said Mr. Schwab and Mr. Branham.

''The GAO is in the process of providing us with written confidentiality agreements to protect our workers and the (FATLC) is working to get written pledges of immunity from retaliation for anyone who comes forward,'' Mr. Branham said.

Asked why safety problems at Fernald had been allowed to fester, Mr. Branham said:

''Everyone, including the Energy Department and FERMCO, is so concerned about getting Fernald's nuclear waste cleaned up as quickly as possible that they apparently are willing to ignore - or just don't care about - all the safety and management violations going on.''

FERMCO's ignoring various safety rules to expedite cleanup has led to several serious incidents, including workers suffering radioactive contamination; broken bones; employees being allowed to work in contaminated areas without required protective clothing; and the mishandling of radioactive materials, Mr. Branham and Mr. Schwab said, corroborating Energy Department and - or FERMCO records.

Mr. Branham said reports of 78 radioactive contaminations of Fernald workers, identified in a Feb. 12 Enquirer report, ''were in most cases determined by the Energy Department to be the fault of FERMCO management.'' Energy Department records revealed that in 51 of those cases, a FERMCO ''management problem'' was cited as the cause.

Safety provisions fought

While FERMCO keeps telling everyone how they put safety as the first priority, the real story is quite different, Mr. Branham said.

''It must be remembered that when FERMCO took over at Fernald in 1992, one of the first things it tried to do was get rid of the strong safety language we had fought for years to get in our contracts,'' he said. ''That safety language was there to protect the workers. We finally had to go to court and sue FERMCO to protect our workers.''

FERMCO tried to do away with the stringent safety protections ''because they could make more money by doing a job quicker if they didn't have to worry about the safety of its own workers,'' Mr. Schwab said.

A Nov. 25, 1994, ruling by U.S. District Judge S. Arthur Spiegel on the union's lawsuit to maintain the stringent safety language confirmed the union's claims. In his ruling, Judge Spiegel, who had handled claims against the previous operator of the plant, wrote:

''This court is all too familiar with the health and safety problems at Fernald. Therefore, out of caution, we reaffirm . . . that the health and safety provisions . . . of the (contract) between FATLC and FERMCO remain in effect for all workers at Fernald.''

Despite the court ruling, FERMCO has continued to reduce or eliminate safety practices that could help protect workers, Mr. Branham said.

An example of that was FERMCO's elimination of full-radiation training for most subcontractor employees at the site, Mr. Branham said.

''Before FERMCO arrived every worker out there would be fully trained in all aspects of protection, including radioactive contamination, general safety procedures, and emergency situations,'' he said. ''Now FERMCO decides who needs the training and what amount they get depending on a specific job. That's going on today.''

A review of FERMCO's written safety training policies and records since December 1992, when it took over management of the Fernald site, confirmed the union's statements that the company had changed safety training to an ''as needed'' basis.

An example of FERMCO's reducing safety training, Mr. Branham said, was FERMCO's decision nearly two years ago not to provide RAD-2 (an advanced radiation safety course) training to all subcontractor employees.

''All our (FATLC) workers are required to get the basic RAD-1 and the advanced RAD-2 training,'' he said. ''But FERMCO decided it cost too much and took too long to give all its subcontractor employees the more advanced training. So they changed the rule to say that as long as only one subcontractor employee in any work group had received RAD-2 training, that was enough. The problem with that is you now have a lot of people working in highly radiation-contaminated areas who have no real radiation safety training and they're getting contaminated.''

Mr. Branham said RAD-1 training is only a very basic course that does not prepare a worker to safely work with radioactive materials.

Additionally, FERMCO reduced the required course time for Hazardous Material Training from 40 hours to 24 hours, he said.

Published May 5, 1996.