Department of Energy's Safety and Health Program for Enrichment Plant Workers Is Not Adequately Implemented

EMD-80-78: Published: Jul 11, 1980. Publicly Released: Jul 22, 1980.

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The Department of Energy (DOE) is responsible for establishing and enforcing occupational safety and health standards for both radiological and nonradiological matters at many DOE-owned, contractor-operated facilities, including the Nation's three uranium enrichment plants. Field responsibility for all three enrichment plants is administered by the Oak Ridge Operations Office. GAO was requested to review the DOE safety and health program to determine if its procedures are adequate to ensure the safe operation of the uranium enrichment facilities and if such procedures are adequately implemented. The DOE program for safety and health oversight and enforcement at the three plants relies primarily on a three-layered system: (1) inspections, (2) appraisals of the contractor's operations, and (3) investigations of employee complaints. Safety records of the three plants were examined and compared with national statistics and DOE-wide statistics. All major accidents which have occurred at the facilities were reviewed in addition to the 92 safety and health complaints filed by contractor employees.

Physical inspections of conditions at each plant are required annually, but DOE has conducted only five inspections at the plants in the past 4 years. Appraisals have not been conducted as often as necessary and have failed to focus on major problem areas. Employees are encouraged to seek resolution of complaints with the operating contractor. Complaints that are not resolved at that level are filed with the Operations Office. In many cases, DOE delegated complete responsibility for handling complaints it received to the contractors. Thus the employee is faced with the same situation for which he previously sought resolution. The Operations Office is not following up on changes recommended as a result of occupational safety and health complaints from employees at enrichment plants. Although DOE procedures require a written response to each contractor employee filing a complaint, the Operations Office did not provide a written response to 27 of the 92 complaints on file. Staff shortages appear to have contributed to the inability to meet safety and health program objectives. Because contractors have no immediate incentive to improve health and safety conditions, the ability of DOE to enforce safety and health standards is handicapped. Its primary enforcement power is the threat of nonrenewal or cancellation of the contract with the operators. The Operations Office's dual responsibilities of production and safety and health limit its ability to administer a safety and health program independently and objectively.

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