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December 4, 2003

Mediation made Hanford safer and could work elsewhere, too, report says

Whistleblowers at the Hanford Nuclear Site got their health and safety complaints resolved fast and at a fraction of the usual cost through a unique mediation group that has gone out of business, according to a new report.

The Hanford Joint Council for Resolving Employee Concerns, which closed its doors this year after losing its corporate funding, says in a wrapup report to the state today that it posted a 100 percent success rate in resolving worker complaints during its eight-year lifespan at the giant Eastern Washington nuclear site.

“Many careers were saved and safety issues addressed,” said Jonathan Brock, the council chairman and an associate professor at the University of Washington’s Evans School of Public Affairs. “The companies also benefited, because it provided them with an early and constructive opportunity to identify and resolve safety questions.”

Nearly 100 concerned employees contacted the council, which formally took on 40 cases that all were successfully resolved. The average cost was $62,000, compared to what the report said is a minimum of several hundred thousand dollars for most federal whistleblower cases.

So effective was the council’s innovative combination of factual assessment and mediation, Brock said, that a similar approach should be tried in other regulated settings where there is a public interest in resolving the issues, such as health care.

The Hanford council was formed in 1994 following a barrage of high-profile, costly and unresolved whistlblower cases. The nonprofit corporation was set up through an unusual cooperative agreement among nuclear-safety advocates, several Hanford contractor corporations, the Energy Department and the state of Washington.

Serving on the council were three senior managers of contractor firms, one former whistleblower and two neutral members with experience in conflict resolution. The participating corporations, such as Westinghouse Hanford, CH2MHill and Fluor Hanford, agreed to implement any recommendation reflecting council consensus.

With an average annual budget of $360,000, the council hired independent medical and technical experts, and had the advantage of speedy access to the presidents of the companies.

“This collaborative forum allowed everyone to beat their swords into plowshares,” said former council member Ed Aromi, president and general manager of CH2MHill.

In addition to handling individual complaints, the council also pushed for training programs, steps to protect workers from beryllium and other health threats, and, after a widely publicized 1997 explosion, independent medical tests.

However, in March 2003, Fluor Hanford informed the council that it had decided to no longer participate and would instead invest in internal safety efforts, bringing about the council’s demise, according to the report.

Even before Fluor’s pullout, actions by the various companies occasionally hampered the council’s efforts, the report said, including cases when mid-level managers breached an employee’s confidentiality or when legal reviews caused needless foot-dragging.

In general, the 16-page wrapup report concludes that top corporate officials often were more responsive to safety concerns and rules than some middle managers, but that the turnover of six CEOs during the council’s existence was a repeated hindrance to progress.

Overall, however, the report says the council’s remarkable success could set an example for handling other sensitive issues across the nation.

As to the Hanford site itself, the report concludes that the council inspired lasting safeguards and greater safety awareness but significant challenges remain.

State Attorney General Christine Gregoire, who originally was involved as state Ecology director, says in the report that officials are unsure about how the council’s vital functions will be replaced.

Gregoire said the council saved the government millions of dollars during its operation.

“The council,” she said, “has ensured accountability for the site and dignity for the workers that will be difficult to duplicate.”

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For more information, contact Brock at (206) 616-5817 or jbrock@u.washington.edu.