Retooling at Fluor Hanford

Ergonomics aids America's toughest environmental work, improving safety on the front lines of nuclear waste cleanup.

SEND in your best-trained people to clean up aging facilities that were once part of the nuclear weapons-production complex. The two "K Basins" and their contaminated contents pose a potential threat to the nearby Columbia River. The Basins are like indoor swimming pools, each holding more than a million gallons of radioactive water. Tens of thousands of irradiated fuel assemblies that once filled the cores of nuclear reactors are stored in the Basins. Those assemblies have become degraded, corroded, broken, and coated with radioactive ooze. Many are swollen or stuck inside canisters originally designed to protect them as they sat for decades in underwater storage. After repackaging the fuel and removing the canisters to a safe location, your crew must find a way to analyze the exact nature of the thick layer of contaminated sludge that's formed across the bottom of one deep storage pool. It's a mixture of nuclear material and settled silt. It's clearly hazardous and must be cleaned up. The building is old, and lighting is less than ideal for the current mission; the water is so cloudy that workers use underwater cameras to see what they're working on. The environment demands personal protective equipment that is bulky and will restrict movement. Most tasks can be done only from high platforms by awkwardly reaching over railings. Because much of the work is unprecedented, the best possible tools must be found or fabricated quickly. Finally, the one thing firmer than the expectation to get the job done rapidly is the absolute requirement to get it done safely.

This scenario is not creative invention; it's currently playing out at the U.S. Department of Energy's Hanford Site in southeastern Washington State. The fuel canisters have been removed successfully, and workers are now dealing with the tricky job of extracting the remaining radioactive sludge. Yet in its course, the operation has compiled an enviable safety record that's winning broad recognition. The contractor charged with completing the work, Fluor Hanford, credits the safety success with the application of the best science can offer on every front--including the science of ergonomics.

"We knew we had to do something, because people were getting hurt on the job," said Chris Lucas, closure director for the K-East Basin. "We had tried several things and were almost at a loss about what to do at that point. Ergonomics was an avenue we had not explored. It came up in a discussion a group of us had one day, and we decided to look into it."

Fluor Hanford's Spent Nuclear Fuel (SNF) Project hired an ergonomics/human factors specialist to observe conditions and formulate recommendations for all four of the shifts that keep operations going 24 hours a day, seven days a week. With the intent of reducing strains, sprains, and "body mechanics" accidents and injuries, SNF Project management also formed teams of managers, engineers, and bargaining-unit employees to focus on what could be improved immediately. The project set goals for instituting timely and efficient measures to reduce injuries in the near term without affecting production.

Difficult Tasks in Close Quarters
Denise Brooks, whose background includes 25 years in occupational safety in commercial nuclear and manufacturing industries, took pictures and shot video of ongoing work and interviewed employees. "It wasn't an ivory tower approach," said Brooks. "I dressed up in protective gear and went into the K Basins facility. I learned the tools. I attempted to move nuclear fuel--under supervision. I worked all shifts and talked to people on the job, including labor representatives and management. It was a hands-on approach. Fluor and the K-Basins didn't need academic input, they needed practical solutions."

She was awestruck by the situation. The fuel sat 16 feet underwater, and workers stood on grating suspended nearly 10 feet above the water's surface. "The challenges almost defied comprehension," Brooks said. "Everything was oriented downward. People were reaching over railings, bending forward. They might not be able to see what's in the water and had to look at a closed-circuit monitor connected to an underwater camera. While trying to maneuver tools with long handles, they also had to interact with one another. In some areas of the basins, several people had to work together in very close quarters. You could have a supervisor, a radiological technician, and several operators. The people almost became obstructions to one another.

"Communication was a challenge due to the very nature of the place. Acoustics were not good. There was background noise from pumps and fans. Meanwhile, people were working under productivity requirements and deadlines that added a degree of psychological pressure. So the situation involved a whole array of factors," Brooks continued. "If you're trying to solve the problem of people getting hurt or people being uncomfortable or feeling job stress, you have to look at all of those things systematically."

Brooks said the project team made a complete study of the work at the K Basins, always considering the involvement of people at the center of that work. "We looked at all the things that impact people; the tools they need to do the job, and the environment," she said. "That included light, noise, and heat. It involved task elements. Then we had to consider all the tasks, various people, and the environment together and how they all interacted, because if you change one thing, you impact everything else. There's never just one solution or just one answer."

She admitted such attention to detail can appear tedious but said the devil is definitely in the details. "For example, it's a given that when one wears gloves, grip strength is reduced by 20 percent. In other words, to do the same task, a person has to work at a level of 120 percent just to break even, simply because they're wearing gloves for protection," Brooks said.

Even with clear-cut observations in hand, there were no ready-made or simple solutions to fit the complicated environment of the K Basins. "It's one of a kind," said Lucas. "There are not a lot of work sites where they're manually reaching long-handled tongs into relatively deep pools of water to manipulate spent nuclear fuel. They're working through slots in grating while wearing bulky equipment to protect them from radiation. It's not like you could go out and buy ergonomically correct tools off the shelf."

Tool Improvements & Systematic Changes
Brooks and the workers, in cooperation with engineering, operations, and the project's safety council, came up with several ideas to improve the situation. Very inexpensive modifications were made to long-handled tools and the way equipment was positioned. Various other tools and devices were revamped, making them adjustable, retractable, and adaptable. The handles of spray wands, for example, were reoriented so wrists don't tilt when workers use the wands to decontaminate objects lifted out of the water.

"Previously, we had very limited variety in the length of our work tools," Lucas said. "Now, we supply almost every length, so they're suitable for tall people or short people working on an array of activities."

Changes were made to air-balance tools that pull down from the basin ceilings to manipulate fuel on underwater tables. They were fixed closer to where workers stood and made adjustable for worker height and left- or right-handedness. A retractable hoist was added with special features that sensed tool movement and provided motorized help, reducing the amount of human effort required.

Other ergonomic and human factors improvements reflected a systematic or "systems" approach to the problems. A "systems" approach includes consideration of physical and psychological effects on people, tasks to be performed, tools used, and workplace environment. Where appropriate, for example, changes were made to lighting, temperature, and air quality. "It's just not about what we can or cannot do physically," said Brooks. "It's about all those myriad inputs and the toll they take on a worker over the course of a day or a month. You may have heard of cumulative trauma disorders; our arms, shoulders, or backs might hurt due to wear and tear over time. I believe solutions are also cumulative. When you improve tools, change protective equipment, provide more training, change work practices, introduce a new management philosophy, rewrite procedures--it all accumulates, and you build a better environment. The more that can be applied--based on a wide range of recommendations--the greater likelihood of success."

"It definitely raised the awareness that injuries are a result of a number of factors, including how you're involved in the work," added Lucas. "It's not just the tools that make the job. The way we stand or move, for example, matters. People are an integral part of the work process, and we have people of every size, shape, and disposition out there trying to do the same activities."

Injury Rates Plunge
This systems approach, with management sponsorship and worker involvement, led to a significant and visible improvement in working conditions and a dramatic reduction in injuries. Still, Brooks and Lucas pointed out no one should get the idea that the process of planning and applying major ergonomic improvements is quick and painless. For example, there are financial considerations; it may not be practical--or even possible--to put every recommendation into practice.

"It would be nice if we had the money to reinvent or re-engineer everything for the task at hand," Brooks said. "That's not realistic in terms of money or time. One of the fine lines I walk is balancing production requirements, milestone commitments, and costs with the needs of people."

For a number of reasons, Brooks said, convincing workers and managers of the validity of ergonomic solutions also takes effort. People may harbor preconceived ideas about the reasons behind accidents or injuries. For example, Brooks said there was a perception some of the problems at the K Basins were attributable to an aging workforce (average age: 49). Statistics, however, did not support that notion, and instead indicated accidents were spread across age groups. Then, there was the ever-present human tendency to balk against change.

"To be honest, there was mixed reaction to both what was suggested and what was developed," Lucas said. "There was some resistance and a lot of emotion. Some ideas weren't practical for application in the field. At times, we reached impasse. One group really liked the suggestions and wanted to see changes happen. Another group said, 'If you put that in, we're not using it.' We struggled through that. It took a real team process to finally get to where we did and make improvements."

"The line our team always holds is zero accidents," said Tony Umek, vice president of Safety & Health for Fluor Hanford. "The Department of Energy, like Fluor, is very clear in its expectation that our employees and their safety come first. That means before schedule, milestone, or cost considerations."

Fluor points to the K Basin's safety numbers as the best proof of the value of ergonomics. The 350 employees on the project reduced their OSHA recordable rate (the number of injuries per 200,000 hours worked, equivalent to 100 employees working for a year) from 10.5 to 1.3, an 88 percent improvement.

The ergonomic improvements were carried to other Fluor facilities, which achieved similar reductions in injuries. The efforts allowed Fluor Hanford's 3,500 employees to reach a long-desired milestone last year: an OSHA recordable injury rate of less than one case per 200,000 hours.

The Association of Washington Business recently recognized Fluor Hanford's ergonomic efforts by presenting the company with the 2006 Award for Continuous Commitment to a Better Workplace. Lucas and Brooks said the real honors are in helping good people do a good job.

"Ergonomics is a productivity tool," Brooks said. "You take into account the people in your system. At the K-Basins, I found very good and honorable people. They're human beings: They have needs, they have insecurities. They may be aging. They may be male or female. They may have a lot of experience or very little. Regardless, they're miraculously human. Help them deal with the entire situation, and they can do wonderfully well."

This article appeared in the June 2006 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

This article originally appeared in the June 2006 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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