New Bill Could Help Hanford Site Workers Facing Health Conditions From Toxic Exposure

Illustration of legal cases for asbestos and mesothelioma

A new bill is expected to pass soon that will make it easier for Hanford nuclear reservation workers to qualify for workers’ compensation, which can help cover medical expenses and lost wages. The legislation would update the current program to include more health conditions presumed to be a result of exposure to various toxins at the job site, including a variety of cancers and respiratory conditions like leukemia and mesothelioma.

The Hanford Site is a decommissioned nuclear production complex that was established in 1943 as part of the Manhattan Project. The site was home to the first full-scale plutonium production reactor, producing the radioactive chemical agent for weaponry. The site has been under ongoing cleaning efforts since it was added to the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Priority list in 1988.

The proposed bill would cover any worker who spent as small as a single eight-hour shift anywhere on the vast 580-acre site, including those involved in the cleanup efforts. Those in favor of the bill mentioned how only one brief exposure to asbestos isn’t safe, and can result in a dangerous diagnosis, like mesothelioma, decades later.

Similar to other presumption laws of this nature, there are some factors that could still help refute a worker’s claim, including:

  • History of smoking
  • Physical fitness
  • Family health history
  • Other potential toxic exposures at other job sites/locations

Without this update, Hanford site workers face many difficulties in receiving workers’ compensation benefits. The Department of Energy is self-insured to pay the claims through a third-party agent when the benefits are approved by the state’s Department of Labor and Industries. A proponent of the bill said that state compensation claims from Hanford workers were denied at five times the rate of other self-insured employers in 2017.

The low rate of approval for these claims is surprising, given all the challenges and emergencies on site throughout this difficult cleanup. Last year, the site had several emergencies that lead to toxic waste exposures for workers, like when the Plutonium Finishing Plant was demolished in the summer and many workers inhaled or ingested radioactive particles. Just last month, another spread of radioactive material was detected, with tests pending for nearly 200 workers exposed.

With these new presumption laws in place, these workers and others will be better able to receive the compensation they deserve. The bill has already passed the House and Senate, but will first return to the House for agreement on a recent change to the proposed legislation. It is expected to go to the governor soon and be signed into law.