Energy Employees Compensation: Labor Could Better Assist Claimants through Clearer Communication

GAO-19-90 Published: Nov 07, 2018. Publicly Released: Dec 07, 2018.
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Fast Facts

For decades, many government and contract workers building nuclear weapons were exposed to toxic substances. Since 2004, a Department of Labor program has provided $4.4 billion in compensation to those claiming exposure-related illnesses.

Earlier we found Labor's explanations of claim denials and the evidence needed to support a claim could be unclear. This could make it harder to refile denied claims.

This report found Labor ultimately approved many denied claims. From 2012 through 2017, it reopened 7,000 claims and approved 69% of them.

We recommended better training for claim reviewers on communicating what is needed to reopen a claim.

A worker irradiating uranium in a nuclear reactor to produce plutonium for weapons in the Atomic Energy Commission's Savannah River Plant in South Carolina in the early 1970s

This black and white photo shows a man in a white coverall working a crank on a large machine.

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What GAO Found

The Department of Labor (DOL), from 2012 through 2017, reopened more than 7,000 compensation claims by contracted workers with illnesses resulting from exposure to toxins at Department of Energy (Energy) worksites. Of these reopened claims, 69 percent were approved for compensation (see figure). Claims can be reopened for various reasons, including new information on toxic substances and associated illnesses or new evidence provided by a claimant. According to DOL's Office of the Ombudsman officials, some claims may have been denied as a result of claimants not understanding the evidence required to support their claim. Moreover, the Ombudsman's two most recent reports in 2015 and 2016 found DOL's letters to claimants requesting additional evidence or informing them of the final decision did not clearly explain the specific evidence needed or why previously submitted evidence was deemed insufficient. GAO's previous work also found deficiencies in the quality of a sample of DOL's written communication with claimants. DOL has provided training to claims examiners on how to write clearly in correspondence and plans to assess the training. The assessment is an opportunity for DOL to better understand why some claimants remain confused about needed evidence and could help DOL target its training resources more effectively.

Outcome of Most Recently Reopened Compensation Claims by Energy Contracted Employees, 2012 through 2017

Outcome of Most Recently Reopened Compensation Claims by Energy Contracted Employees, 2012 through 2017

Note: Closed” claims are no longer active and “other” includes those with approvals for at least one claimed illness combined with other outcomes. Percentages may not sum to 100 because of rounding.

The Advisory Board on Toxic Substances and Worker Health (Advisory Board) recommended in 2016 and 2018 that DOL incorporate additional sources of information on toxic substances and associated illnesses into the database it uses to help determine eligibility for claims compensation. While DOL noted that certain additional data sources might be useful, it has not added all of the recommended data sources. The Advisory Board was created to provide technical advice to DOL on its database, among other things.

Why GAO Did This Study

For decades, Energy, its predecessor agencies, and contractors employed thousands of employees in hazardous work in nuclear weapons production, exposing many employees to toxic substances. The Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program, administered by DOL, provides compensation for illnesses linked to exposures. Since 2004, DOL has provided about $4.4 billion to eligible employees and their survivors.

GAO was asked to review aspects of the claims process for contracted employees. GAO examined (1) the number and outcome of compensation claims for illnesses resulting from exposure to toxins that DOL has reopened since 2012, and (2) the Advisory Board's advice to DOL on the scientific soundness of its database on toxins and illnesses, and DOL's responses. GAO analyzed DOL claims data for 2012—when a new data system was introduced— through 2017 and assessed their reliability. GAO reviewed relevant federal laws and DOL procedures, and Advisory Board documents and interviewed DOL officials, Advisory Board members, experts, and a claimant advocate.

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GAO recommends that DOL ensure any assessment of its staff training efforts considers claimants' challenges with understanding DOL's communications on evidence for claims. DOL neither agreed nor disagreed with the recommendation except to note that it plans to focus its training on such topics as quality of written communications and assess its training efforts.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Labor The Secretary of Labor, in conducting any assessment of its staff training designed to improve clarity of communication with claimants, should ensure that the assessment considers claimants' challenges with understanding DOL's written communications on the evidence needed to successfully reopen or otherwise support a claim.
Closed – Implemented
DOL did not explicitly agree with this recommendation but stated it planned to focus its staff training efforts on various topics, including improving the quality of written communications. The agency subsequently hired a training analyst to, among other things, design assessment measures to gauge the quality of training and the effect it has improving the overall quality of claim outcomes. As of fiscal year 2020, DOL had also contracted with a training vendor to update training materials, then conducted hands-on staff training that included providing claimants with a clear understanding as to why a claim is accepted or denied. In addition, DOL developed survey instruments to collect feedback from claimants and their representatives about DOL's claimant communications, including ways to improve the language in its written correspondence. We reviewed the instruments and determined the information collected could be used to improve DOL's written communications on the evidence needed to support claims. Taken together, DOL's actions address our recommendation.

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