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Working In These Times

Tuesday, Jun 28, 2011, 8:55 am

OSHA Fines Honeywell, Citing 17 ‘Serious Violations’ at Uranium Facility

BY Mike Elk

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USW Local 7-669 members put up mock tombstones around the Honeywell uranium enrichment facility in Illinois to demonstrate the damage done by the lockout.   (focusmidwest.com)

Federal action comes almost exactly one year after USW members were locked-out of Illinois plant by international company

When union workers were locked out over a year ago at the Honeywell uranium facility in Metropolis, Ill., they warned that the unskilled scabs being brought into the plant would cause accidents at the uranium enrichment facility due to their lack of experience. Despite these warnings, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission certified the workers as being qualified to operate the plant, and it has continued to operate.

Since then, a very loud explosion has been caused at the plant last August, a small amount of lethally toxic UF6 was released last September, and a very large release of the toxic HF gas occurred in late December that set off alarms and troubled local community members. Locked-out union workers, members of United Steelworkers Local 7-699, claimed that the scab replacement workers running the plant were unqualified and should not be allowed to run it.

They cited an NRC report from last November, which showed that Honeywell cheated on initial safety qualification reports for its workers. The NRC claimed that after the cheating on the tests was discovered all workers were retested and passed after being retested.

But a new citation against Honeywell from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) bolsters their claim that the Honeywell uranium facility is being run unsafely. Last Wednesday, OSHA cited Honeywell with 17 separate “serious violations” that could have resulted in death or serious harm and fined Honeywell $119,000 for the accidental release of HF gas in December.

The federal agency defines a "serious violation" as occurring "when there is substantial probability that death or serious physical harm could result from a hazard about which the employer knew or should have known.” According to OSHA the 17 serious violations they were cited for included:

Violations include allowing cylinders to be exposed to physical damage; having inaccurate field verifications on tanks and values; using equipment that was not in compliance with recognized and generally accepted good engineering practices; failing to have clear written operating instructions for processes such as unloading hydrogen fluoride into storage tanks and switching storage tanks; failing to address human factors in relation to remote operating valves on the hydrogen fluoride storage tanks; failing to document and resolve issues addressed by the process hazard analysis team; failing to establish written procedures to maintain the integrity of process equipment; failing to implement written emergency operating procedures for emptying hydrogen fluoride tanks; failing to perform appropriate checks and inspections to ensure equipment was properly installed; and failing to establish and implement written procedures to manage changes to process chemicals, equipment and procedures.

The company also was cited for a deficient incident report that did not include factors contributing to the vapor release and the recommendation resulting from the internal investigation.

The violations that OSHA cited Honeywell for at the uranium plant has troubled many in the local community, who worry that a release of toxic gas could kill nearby residents. Speaking at a rally marking the one-year anniversary of workers being locked-out from the Honeywell uranium facility, Metropolis, Ill., Mayor Billy McDaniel, said he was so worried about the safety conditions that “There are times when I have trouble sleeping at night.”

The company has 15 business days from receipt of its citations and penalties to comply, request a meeting with OSHA, or contest the citation in front of an independent OSHA Review Commission. Honeywell Spokesman Peter Dapel did not return phone calls requesting comment from the company.

Union workers say the new safety violations cited by OSHA are even more evidence that Honeywell needs to settle the lockout. “The OSHA violations further validate what we’ve said all along. The members of this local union are the guardians of safety in the plant, and left to themselves, Honeywell will not ensure a true culture of safety first,” says union spokesman John Paul Smith.

Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Working In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is currently a labor reporter at Politico.

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