USW Workers Keep Operations Safe at DUF6 Conversion Project

USW workers’ input is critical to keeping operations safe at the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Depleted Uranium Hexafluoride (DUF6) Conversion Project at its Portsmouth, Ohio, and Paducah, Ky., sites.

DUF6 workers deal with radioactive and hazardous substances day in and day out, so they know what needs to be done to make their work safer. Therefore, it is no surprise that they play a major role in ongoing major plant modifications to improve worker safety at the DUF6 project.

Photo: Dept. of Energy -- Permanent maintenance access platforms replaced scaffolding to improve worker safety

For example, a USW member was behind the change this year from temporary, wooden scaffolding to permanent, metal access platforms, said Local 550 industrial hygiene and safety specialist Chris Neely at the Paducah DUF6 project.

“A member expressed concern that he could be in high areas that are hard to get to and are in an extremely hot environment. It would be difficult to get a person out if they passed out from the heat,” Neely said. He said the member entered a safety suggestion in the Safety First program at the site, and a safety committee reviewed it.

Brad Richards, an operator technician at the Paducah DUF6 facility, said the metal platforms are sturdier. “Instead of climbing up vertically, you can walk up. When you take your tools and parts to do lockout/tagout on the valves, you have to go up several times a day and those permanent platforms make it much safer.”

Piping replaced

Member feedback also led to the reduction of a second hazard: chemical exposure.

“One of the issues we have is with potassium hydroxide and hydrofluoric acid in liquid form going through the PVC plastic piping,” Richards said. “With the PVC piping, chemicals leaked at the joints and the plastic piping got brittle and broke, even if you leaned on it. If the plastic piping was to break, it could be dangerous.”

The PVC piping is now being replaced with lined stainless steel piping. “This significantly reduces workers’ exposure to a chemical,” Neely said.

He said that at the Paducah site, USW workers handled the demolition, fabrication and installation of the steel pipe, “which is a big win for us. We had multiple discussions with the plant manager to get our members more work instead of using subcontractors. It was more cost effective for us to do the job.”

Other improvements included adding new backup systems and improving the lockout/tagout system so maintenance employees can safely work on the pipes without dangerous hydrogen fluoride being in them.

Photo: Dept. of Energy -- This closeup shows a backup scrubber with new steel pipes in Paducah’s Process Offgas System. 

Both Neely and Richards said the union and the company worked together to lobby Congress for more funding to make these safety improvements. That cooperation extends to the workplace.

“The more the plant runs, the more management understands the importance of workers’ input,” Richards said. “There is respect for the worker, and it’s a whole new safety culture we have at the DUF6 project. We all pride ourselves in thinking safety first.”

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