Hanford atomic workers get state legislative boost for workers’ comp
Hanford workers pull out a highly contaminated glove box at the Plutonium Finishing Plant, much of which is now demolished. More than 30 workers have inhaled or ingested small amounts of radioactive particles during demolition of the plant. Courtesy Department of Energy

HANFORD, Wash.—This is a good-news story. It involves a persistent union legislative director, a favorable election outcome, and bipartisan and cross-chamber cooperation in the Washington State legislature.

And the beneficiaries are and will be hundreds, if not thousands, of workers exposed to some of the most dangerous materials known to humans.

The workers are present workers and retirees, at the Department of Energy’s nuclear complex in Hanford, Wash. And as a result of all those factors, they’ll be more eligible for workers’ comp.

The story starts in 1942-43, says Nick Bumpaous of Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 598, located near the complex. That’s when the U.S. War Department took over the Hanford area to build the factory complex to make nuclear warheads for U.S. bombs. Hanford, like the whole Manhattan Project for developing atomic weapons, was top secret.

The feds, to their credit, realized Hanford’s workers would be in constant daily contact with uranium, plutonium and other highly radioactive materials. Who knew what would happen to them in later years due to those exposures?

“In the 1940s, the War Department got into a contract with the state legislature to have workers use Washington’s industrial insurance for workers’ comp claims if they got ill from handling the radioactive material,” Bumpaous said in a phone interview. “The feds would reimburse the state for any claims.”

The catch was when sickened workers went to their doctors, the doctors “couldn’t tell what the illnesses were” – because Hanford was secret – “so they couldn’t give you medication,” much less OK workers’ comp claims.

Common diseases among the Hanford workers include various cancers, according to a fact sheet for a later federal workers comp program for federal nuclear workers nationwide. The Steelworkers, who now represent many of those nuke workers, lobbied for and won the federal program. It began in 2001, with a second part added in 2004. But it caps lifetime benefits at $250,000, plus medical expenses.

“But you still put the burden of proof” upon the worker to show his or her toil at Hanford and exposure to the fissile materials there caused those ills, not to mention exposure to other threats, Bumpaous says.

One example: Exposure to diethyl mercury, “a silent odorless, colorless, tasteless stuff that induces neurological diseases and dementia.” In addition, “you have a whole generation of people with reactive airway disease,” he adds.

The doctors couldn’t diagnose the reasons for Hanford ills. The workers became so ill they couldn’t work and had to leave their jobs, “so they’re not getting a paycheck and they had no health insurance.” They had to navigate the bureaucracy “and their claims were denied,” Bumpaous explains. Workers’ comp denials at Hanford were 52 percent above average.

“It’s hard enough to take care of yourself when you’re battling the Department of Energy,” which now runs Hanford “and the state Department of Labor and Industry,” which runs workers’ comp, Bumpaous says.

With the burden of proof on the workers, Bumpaous got into the picture. Two years ago, he read about legislation the Fire Fighters successfully pushed elsewhere, shifting the burden of proof for certain diseases – known to be caused by Fire Fighter exposure to asbestos and other dangers on the job – from the worker to the state.

In short, if a Fire Fighter goes to the doctor with asbestosis, the doctor must presume the worker caught it from on-the-job exposure and is eligible for workers’ comp. Bumpaous wanted to create the same scenario for the Hanford workers. Workers and retirees still must go to the doctors, though.

“These brave workers continue to be exposed to some of the most hazardous substances known to man, including many chemical and radiological hazards as yet unidentified, and the safety measures intended to protect them are inadequate,” wrote David Groves in The Stand, the Washington State Labor Council’s online newspaper, which first reported the legislation.

But the Hanford workers couldn’t get workers comp because they had to “connect specific exposures to their disease — a virtually impossible task given the” top secret “circumstances at Hanford.”

Bumpaous enlisted two lawmakers to push the measure shifting the burden of proof from the workers to the state: State Rep. Larry Haler, R-Richland, and State Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Kent, a longtime pro-worker advocate, who is now state Senate President Pro Tem and chair of the state Senate’s Labor Committee. Haler’s district includes Hanford.

And that’s where the political switch comes in. When Bumpaous, Haler and Keiser first tried to get their bill, HB1723, through, it passed the House, then died in the Senate, which the GOP controlled by one vote. Republican leaders wouldn’t even let it get out of committee.

But earlier this year, Manka Dhingra, a Democratic pro-worker woman with strong union backing, won a special election for an open State Senate seat. Control switched, Keiser took over – and the legislation for the Hanford workers sailed through: 76-22 in the House and 35-14 in the Senate.

“It’s important we take care of workers who suffered due to being exposed to harmful chemicals and processes at Hanford,” Haler said. “Despite all the safety precautions, families and individuals have been devastated by illness and disease. They need help. This will help make that easier,” Haler said after HB1723 headed for Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk.

“Exposure to heavy metal and radiation has ruined people’s lives,” Keiser told the Senate before passage.

“I cannot think of a more suitable assertion for this Senate to make than putting our partisan differences aside to put people first. We are seeing people dying from dementia, cancer and lung disease who were systematically left out of workers compensation.”

“People went bankrupt paying for cancer treatments. This ordeal has been going on since the 1990s. We have seen a whole generation impacted by this tragedy. That is not right. Our Washington community cares about protecting all workers.”

Inslee is expected to sign the bill. But that’s not the end of the story for Bumpaous. “I want to see everyone get these benefits” nationwide if they worked in nuclear weapons and warhead production, he says. “That way we won’t have this type of stuff in the future.”



Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.