Federal Appeals Court Upholds Workers’ Comp Law Helping Hanford Workers

Workers at the Hanford nuclear decontamination site in Washington state, including 560 USW members, will keep their more direct access to workers’ compensation benefits, thanks to a decision from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The three judges on Aug.19 unanimously upheld a 2018 Washington state law that allowed workers at Hanford to make workers’ compensation claims without proving their illness was related to their work at the site.

“Sick workers who were not able to get benefits under the Department of Labor’s federal compensation program have had better success filing under Washington state’s Hanford presumption law,” said Josh Artzer, the Local 12-369 nuclear chemical operator who helps current and former workers and their survivors access the benefit programs.

The U.S. Department of Justice challenged the state law, which presumes that any neurological disease or respiratory illnesses, as well as many types of cancer and some heat conditions, were the result of radiological or chemical exposures at the site.

Some contract workers at Hanford’s tank farm had fallen ill and had trouble proving their illnesses were connected to their work. Their employers—the contractors—did not always require them to use supplied air respirators to protect them from breathing in toxic chemical vapors associated with the chemicals held in the underground tanks.

About 1,500 chemicals are in the underground tanks, with the vapors vented into the air, and under the 2018 law, these workers no longer have to show the exact chemical or toxin they may have been exposed to that could cause illness.

The Justice Department filed a lawsuit claiming that the 2018 law discriminated against the federal government and its contractors and that it violated the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution.  

In June 2019, U.S. Judge Stanley Bastian ruled against the Department of Justice. This month’s ruling upholds the lower court’s decision.

“There’s a word for President Trump and his Department of Justice’s attempt to rip away our state law helping Hanford workers access health care they earned—cruel,” said Bob Ferguson, Washington state attorney general, in a statement.

“Hanford workers are cleaning up one of the most contaminated sites on the planet, and they deserve these protections,” he said.

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