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Protecting Whistle-Blowers

The Hanford Concerns Council in Washington state was formed according to state mediation laws, and members include company representatives, advocacy group members and independent parties.

April 2, 2012
Related Topics: Retaliation, Miscellaneous Legal Issues, Wrongful Discharge, Legal
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The Hanford Site nuclear facility in southeastern Washington state has been a source of contention for decades, rife with whistle-blower complaints, lawsuits and allegations of retaliation. To quell complaints, a workers' council was launched 20 years ago to find a resolution before further escalation.

At the time, "a lot of Hanford workers had made allegations of reprisals for raising safety concerns," says Tom Carpenter, executive director of the not-for-profit Hanford Challenge and a founding member of the workers' council.

Workers spoke of having security teams deployed to investigate whistle-blowers who were subjected to surveillance, forced psychological reviews and even assault. Security "approached whistle-blowers like they were traitors or spies, and they referred to them in those terms," Carpenter says.

The ongoing strife prompted the Washington State Ecology Department to request that the University of Washington study the problems and recommend a course of action. That resulted in the creation of the Hanford Joint Council for Resolving Employee Concerns, now known as the Hanford Concerns Council.

The council was formed according to state mediation laws, and members include company representatives, advocacy group members and independent parties.

The 586-square-mile Hanford Site houses nine former nuclear reactors and their processing facilities. Reactor construction started in 1943 to produce plutonium for atomic weapons. The reactors were shut down in 1987, and today an enormous environmental cleanup is under way to remediate decades of damage.

"The council runs pretty much on trust," Carpenter says, and employees at the three companies that take part in the council can come to him with their concerns. He determines if the issue fits the council's mandate, and then the council decides if it wants to take on the case.

Over the years the council has tackled 120 cases. "We look for big, high-profile cases and get them resolved," he says.

Council members can talk to any employee of the companies that take part—Washington River Protection Solutions, Washington Closure Hanford and CH2M Hill Plateau Remediation Co.—while investigating allegations of technical and safety issues or personal problems that arose if an employee expressed concern.

The council hears both sides of the dispute and conducts its own research, then proposes a solution. While the employee can accept or reject the solution, the company involved is required to implement it unless it would violate laws or contractual provisions, he says.

John Lehew, president and CEO of the CH2M Hill operation, who is a council member, says "as a company, safety is our top priority. We want to make sure an employee has every avenue available to bring us their concerns."

Lehew says the company encourages employees to talk to him, the human resources department or the company or union safety representative. But some issues require "an independent review to come to an amicable resolution of the issue."

Workforce Management, April 2012, p. 29 -- Subscribe Now!

Susan Ladika is a freelance writer based in Tampa, Florida. To comment, email editors@workforce.com.

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