By Dan Klepal
The Cincinnati Enquirer
CROSBY TWP. - Work was shut down this week at two of the six projects inside the Fernald nuclear cleanup site because of safety violations.
Officials with project manager Fluor Fernald, which is managing the $4.4 billion taxpayer-funded cleanup for the U.S. Department of Energy, acknowledged the violations could have killed workers, and one violation likely exposed three employees to dust laced with thorium.
Test results that will show how much thorium the three workers were exposed to won't be back until Monday.
Health studies have found that breathing thorium dust can cause an increased chance of lung disease and cancer of the lung or pancreas many years after being exposed. Changes in the genetic material of body cells also have been linked to the ingestion of the radioactive metal.
In one of the incidents, a 1,900-pound steel beam fell on a worker's foot; in another, a worker was standing directly under a crane that was moving 1,200 pounds of metal piping.
Workers were exposed to radioactive dust because one employee didn't vacuum panels coming off a building property before discarding them.
"There have been so many near misses over the last eight or nine months, that if you look at the story line you can't help but conclude we're heading for a major accident," said Gene Branham, president of the Fernald Atomic Trades & Labor Council.
This week's shutdowns are the latest in a string of recent safety problems at Fernald.
In the past 10 months, Fernald has been hit with more than $250,000 in fines and received two safety reviews that were critical of the "safety culture" at the site, saying workers and field supervisors believe getting the job done on time is more important than safety to workers and the environment.
Fluor Fernald, a subsidiary of construction giant Fluor Daniel, stands to make hundreds of millions of dollars in profit if the project is finished by the 2006 deadline.
Previous fines have related to a handful of "near miss" incidents that jeopardized the lives of workers at the site.
Just last week, Fernald was fined $40,000 for not marking a high-radiation area with the proper signs. That violation went unnoticed and uncorrected for more than a year before a Department of Energy official brought it to Fernald's attention.
Fernald management says no workers were exposed to radiation because of that mistake; union officials say workers probably were exposed, but it's impossible to know for certain.
Fernald officials must report before the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, in Washington D.C., Oct. 5 to say how they are going to improve safety.
Dennis Carr, a senior project manager for Fernald, said the company will bring in additional managers to help with training and they have initiated safety talks before the start of every shift.
"Are we as safe as we need to be? No, but I think we're taking actions to improve on that," Carr said. "Our expectations are excellence."
Safety problems affect more than just the 2,000 workers at the site, said Lisa Crawford, a member of Fernald's citizens advisory board and one of the 14,000 neighbors of the site that successfully sued the government for contaminating their drinking water and exposing them to radiation during the production years. "If there are major safety issues at the site - and there are - the community beyond the fence line isn't safe," Crawford said. "If safety was a priority, we wouldn't have (seven) incidents in three days."
Union president Branham said company officials talk a good game on safety, but they're sending a different message to workers.
"They talk safety, but they practice schedule," Branham said. "Everything is on a schedule, and middle management says they've got to get it done (on time). They want the workers to rush, and yet observe all safety procedures. Those things don't gel."
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