During the cold war, the U.S. armed itself with a sizable amount of nuclear weapons in order to protect itself from any nation perceived to be an imminent threat, particularly the Soviet Union. However, since the cold war ended and the Soviet Union collapsed, the number of nuclear weapons in the U.S. has decreased considerably. Despite that reduction, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has been aware that individuals who formerly worked in construction at the facilities that housed these weapons were at risk of asbestos exposure.
At Kazan, McClain, Lyons, Greenwood and Harley, we know how badly asbestos has hurt the health of people who worked in all types of industries, including those dealing with nuclear energy. The DOE may be monitoring the health of former nuclear facility employees, but we would still like to remind you that we are here to represent your interests and see to all of your needs.
In return for workers’ service
In 1993, Congress passed a bill that required the DOE to determine the level of health risks faced by individuals who used to work at nuclear weapons facilities and offer medical surveillance to those who needed it. Between 1996 and 1997, the department established programs to monitor people who used to work at at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Richland, Wash.; the Oak Ridge Reservation in Oak Ridge, Tenn., the Savannah River Site in Aiken, S.C. and the Amchitka site in Alaska.
“One of the principal challenges of this project is finding the workers years after their retirement from Hanford,” University of Washington researcher Scott Barnhart said in 1997. “This locating process and enrollment into appropriate medical monitoring programs will take several years of intensive effort. However, it is important for these workers who served the country during the cold war to have an appraisal of the potential health effects of their service.”
In a nuclear weapons facility, construction workers were likely to come in contact with asbestos because of thermal insulation, cement products, valve packings and gaskets.
Monitoring throughout the years
Barnhart and his colleagues published one of the first studies to come out of this initiative. In 1997, a survey of more than 91,000 former workers from Hanford indicated that 31 percent were probably exposed to asbestos. Among those who worked with the hazardous material, abnormalities in lung function were more prevalent than what was expected of the general population.
Scientists all over the country released similar studies since then. In 2003, a separate team of researchers found that a significant proportion of individuals who used to work at Hanford, Oak Ridge or the Savannah River Site had respiratory problems attributable to exposure to asbestos or silica. At the time, they suggested that smoking cessation was essential for these individuals so as not to further aggravate their health problems.
In 2009, this same research team released an updated study that included data from Amchitka. This paper suggested that asbestosis and malignant respiratory diseases were prominent problems in all four DOE nuclear weapons facilities.
The government’s safety guidelines
These days, the federal government is more mindful about protecting workers in the U.S. about the importance of asbestos management. The Office of Environmental Safety and Health has a set of guidelines to help both employers and employees.
Those who work in management need to remind themselves about what kind of training they provide to their employees, whether they have a formal program with written procedures on how to handle asbestos, and what kind of protective clothing and equipment they need to provide.
Meanwhile, employees must be aware of asbestos-containing materials, dust control, air monitoring and whether their job planners took asbestos into consideration.