More than 50 Hanford workers in recent months have sought medical examinations for possible exposure to chemical vapors. Changing shifts to nights and weekends for some workers would leave fewer employees exposed, the contractor says.

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SPOKANE — The contractor that operates radioactive-waste storage tanks on the Hanford nuclear reservation has proposed that employees who move tank-farm waste perform their shifts on nights and weekends to reduce others’ exposure to chemical vapors.

Dozens of employees have said they were sickened from vapors associated with the tanks.

Washington River Protection Solutions (WRPS) this week asked unions to approve making evenings, nights and weekends the standard shifts for employees who transport the waste and work close to waste tanks. The request came a month after union leaders demanded that work that could release vapors be limited at the sprawling facility during the day, when many more employees are present.

More than 8,000 people work at Hanford, but only about 700 have jobs involving waste transport and regular tasks at the waste tanks. Tank-farm work involving the movement of nuclear waste is suspected in the release of the nonradioactive chemical vapors.

More than 50 Hanford workers in recent months have sought medical examinations for possible exposure to chemical vapors. Some reported smelling suspicious odors and some experienced respiratory problems. Nearly all were cleared to return to work.

WRPS President Mark Lindholm said in a letter Thursday that the proposed shift changes would be a key part of “a comprehensive, multi-faceted program to enhance tank farm-worker protection to a level that continues to exceed today’s industry and regulatory standards.”

No one answered the phone Friday morning at the Hanford Atomic Metal Trades Council, a coalition of 15 unions that initially proposed the shift changes at the site.

Hanford for decades made plutonium for nuclear weapons, work that generated a massive inventory of nuclear waste that is stored in 177 underground tanks. The site is now dedicated to cleaning up the waste, a process expected to last decades and cost billions of dollars. WRPS is a contractor for the U.S. Department of Energy, which owns the Hanford site near Richland.

The union coalition had also asked management to supply respirators for all work performed within the Hanford zones that contain steel-lined waste tanks. Some of the tanks are protected by single steel walls; newer ones have double walls.

Workers must already wear respirators while near the single-wall tanks known to emit vapors. Lindholm said in his letter that there is no compelling reason to require their use for employees working around the double-walled tanks because there is no evidence vapors are released from them.

The contractor has delayed plans to bring in additional office trailers that would sit near tank-farm zones.

WRPS has been working with Pacific Northwest National Laboratory to find ways for tank-farm workers to take air samples for testing if they suspect vapors have been released, plus create monitoring systems to identify and track vapor plumes.