It should come as no surprise that conditions in Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant and other older Ohio weapons complexes were potentially hazardous in past years. However, conditions were so bad for plant workers that Congress created the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act (EEOICPA).
The EEOICPA program is meant to provide additional compensation for former workers (or as the program’s website likes to call them, survivors) who were exposed to radiation or chemicals that cause illnesses. The U.S. Department of Labor says the conditions for weapons plants began significantly improving in 1995 onward. However, federal health investigators recently found these plants are continuing to endanger the health and safety of current workers and the EEOICPA is not helping as it should.
Portsmouth Continued to Expose Workers to Dangerous Gases
Building 326 of the uranium enrichment plant in Portsmouth, which was only recently closed, is in the process of decontamination to prepare for its upcoming decommission. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) found hydrogen fluoride, which is a potentially lethal gas, during its investigation in 2015. This building contained concentrations of the gas that was up to 30 times greater than NIOSH’s “ceiling limit,” which is the amount of gas that should not be exceeded because it becomes poisonous. Hydrogen fluoride causes people who are exposed to contract skin damage, chronic lung disease and even lose their sight.
Hydrogen fluoride, which is released when workers cut pipes, converters and compressors, also produces nitrogen dioxide, caused from the cutting itself. Building 326 was never tested for nitrogen dioxide gas, which causes dizziness, difficulty breathing and vomiting. As a result, any injuries or illnesses from exposure likely went unreported for the last 10 years.
Employees Say Management Deliberately Ignored Concerns for Safety, Poisoning Workers
Records show NIOSH interviewed 16 employees during its investigation. The report shows employees shared the same complaints, including:
- There was poor communication between employees and management in regards to safety
- Employees feared retaliation for reporting safety concerns
- Employees were not provided with adequate information about any chemicals used, the dangers of exposure and potential effects to their health
- Portsmouth management placed production goals and time frames before safety.
What’s worse is that these employees were unable to receive compensation for illnesses associated with exposure to these chemicals.
Why Were Portsmouth Compensation Claims Denied to Employees Exposed to Chemicals?
Though the EEOICPA exists specifically to provide compensation for employees who were exposed to particularly hazardous chemicals, the Labor Department often denies claims from survivors of older weapons plants. For some reason, the Department is under the impression that since conditions were supposed to have improved after 1995, any current claims are false. Improvements to safety conditions may have been made that year, however, workers are still exposed to chemicals. Making a few changes a decade ago does not ensure complete safety to workers.
In spite of the NIOSH report on the continued exposure to hydrogen fluoride, and likely nitrogen dioxide that comes with it, a Labor Department spokeswoman said the NIOSH report does not warrant a change in policy. One worker collapsed in building 326 and went to the hospital to find his skin was burned, his hair fell out in clumps and his lungs were scorched. His claim was denied and his lawsuit was dismissed, much like many other workers who were exposed to the hazardous chemicals in weapons plants in the last ten years. The Labor Department is deliberately (and unlawfully) turning a blind eye on Portsmouth and other weapons plant workers by denying them benefits that the EEOICPA was specifically created for.
The workers compensation attorney team at Larrimer & Larrimer gets results for workers who sustained illnesses or injuries as a result of workplace conditions.