Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Experience Dangerous Exposures!

Construction Workers Not Only Ones Who Need to Experience Perilous Environments

In the article from Federal Times.com by Tim Kauaffman, we see that agencies that help provide safe work practices and handling unstable materials show need for continuous oversight in their work environment.

I'm posting this article to remind all agencies, construction companies and individuals of continual perils in their workplaces.

Plutonium spill, laser accident prompt reviews
September 01, 2008

In early June, a glass vial of plutonium powder broke at the National Institutes of Standards and Technology lab in Boulder, Colo. More than a dozen researchers were exposed to radiation — and the agency was exposed as a dysfunctional workplace.

The plutonium spill was only one of several serious accidents reported at NIST labs in the last couple years. In March, a university researcher was shot in the eye with an infrared laser while placing a slide on a microscope at the agency’s headquarters in Gaithersburg, Md.

The researcher is under continuing medical care, and NIST said it tightened its laser safety policies as a result. And in June 2006, a contract construction worker sustained near-fatal injuries when a 500-pound steel beam fell on his head while working at the Boulder campus. The worker has a damages claim pending against the agency, although NIST refused to discuss it.

The incidents have revealed management flaws at the labs, embarrassed NIST leaders, and prompted efforts to overhaul what is viewed as a lax safety culture at the agency.

Discussing the plutonium spill, NIST Deputy Director James Turner told a House panel at a July hearing that “a culture has developed with respect to safety issues that NIST understands must be addressed broadly, beyond this specific event.”

The plutonium spill has sparked no fewer than seven investigations, including one by a blue-ribbon panel of scientific experts being impaneled this month by the agency’s parent organization, the Commerce Department.

Preliminary findings from investigations by agency and industry experts found the accident stemmed from sloppy management and lab practices. A guest researcher, who had joined the Boulder lab in December, was allowed to work with the plutonium powder even though he had no training on the proper handling of radioactive materials. He was allowed to work alone in the laboratory with the plutonium after hours, during which time he removed the vial from several sealed plastic bags.

On the workday before the plutonium spill, the guest researcher and another NIST employee tapped the vial on a marble lab bench to settle the powder. According to one investigator, this action may have caused damage to the bottle that was not immediately evident.

The following workday, the guest researcher was holding the unprotected bottle in one hand while using a computer with his other hand when the bottle apparently struck lead bricks that were placed on the table to shield a nearby computer from the radiation. After noticing a crack in the bottle, he washed his hands in the lab sink, went to his office, used the bathroom and informed the principal investigator of the damage.

Because the spill was not contained, contamination spread out of the laboratory and into the city’s sewer system.

The vial held just one-fourth of a gram of powder — about the size of a dime — but the failure to contain the contamination resulted in about half of the 29 employees tested testing positive for radiation exposure. NIST said the employees should suffer no long-term effects from the exposure, noting that employees were exposed to less radiation than Boulder residents receive on average each year from natural background radiation.

The preliminary findings indicate that the plutonium spill was preventable but occurred because line supervisors failed to take responsibility for safety issues, training was inadequate and insufficient, and no emergency response plan existed.

“Apparently no one at Boulder considered a spill of [plutonium] powder as a possibility, and therefore they were unprepared to deal with it,” said Kenneth Rogers, a former commissioner at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, who investigated the spill.

Safety policies at NIST are woefully behind the times, said Richard Toohey, who also investigated the spill. He is director of Oak Ridge Associated Universities, a consortium of academic institutions in Tennessee and a federal contractor for the Energy Department.

“The safety culture at NIST reminds me of that at DOE research labs some 20 years ago,” Toohey said.

NIST fails to recognize safety as the responsibility of line managers and individual employees, and fails to foster a culture in which employees look out for one another’s safety, he said. Instead, safety is seen as an isolated responsibility of the internal safety and health staff.

Energy created a voluntary protection program in 1994, patterned after an Occupational Safety and Health Administration program, to encourage employees and contractors to not just meet but to exceed federal health and safety regulations. NIST considered launching a similar safety management program four or five years ago, but dropped the idea because of pushback from researchers, Toohey said.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which controls the use of radioactive materials by research facilities, authorized the Boulder lab in February 2007 to acquire plutonium, which it used in its research to develop better radiation detectors for nuclear inspectors.

But lab officials ordered the plutonium without notifying supervisors at headquarters in Gaithersburg, and failed to train its employees on the proper handling of the radioactive material — a precondition for NRC approving the application. In October, the lab received three plutonium samples from Energy’s New Brunswick Laboratory. The lab has suspended use of the other samples until further notice.

NIST said it is reviewing its safety programs and procedures and studying how to prevent future accidents. No one has been disciplined as a result of the plutonium spill, pending the outcome of the investigations.

Mike Quear, a former chemical engineer at Union Carbide Corp. who now serves as staff director for the House subcommittee on technology and the environment, said it took the plutonium spill to draw NIST’s attention to lax training and safety procedures.

“At all levels of NIST management, they realize now they have a serious problem they must deal with and that they have not given environmental safety and health issues adequate consideration,” Quear said.

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