Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Vit Plant Safety Culture Update

Hanford Waste Treatment Plant
DOE released a June 2014 follow-up assessment* on safety culture (SC) at the Hanford Waste Treatment Plant (WTP or the Vit Plant).  This post provides our perspective on the assessment.  We will not review every facet of the report but will focus on aspects that we think are important to understanding the current state of SC at the WTP project.


Back in 2011, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB) called the WTP safety culture (SC) “flawed.”  Following the DNFSB report, DOE conducted an assessment of the WTP SC and concluded “that a significant number of staff within ORP [DOE’s Office of River Protection] and BNI [Bechtel National Inc.] expressed reluctance to raise safety or quality concerns for various reasons.” (p. 1) 

Like DOE’s 2011 report, the current one is based on multiple data sources: structured interviews, focus groups, observations and a culture survey.  The report identifies many SC-related interventions that have been initiated, and lists positive and negative findings from the data collected.  Detailed assessment results are reported separately for ORP and BNI.**
WTP’s Safety Conscious Work Environment (SCWE)—Voicing Concerns, Challenging Decisions, Fear of Retaliation

The 2011 DNFSB critique focused on the treatment of project personnel who raised technical issues.  Some of these personnel complained about retaliation for bringing up such issues.  These issues can be raised in the Employee Concerns Program (ECP), the Differing Professional Opinions (DPO) process and challenging management decisions.  In what is arguably the report’s most significant finding, perceptions of conditions in these areas are worse than they were in 2011 for ORP and unchanged for BNI. (pp. 4-5)

Supporting Details

Although ORP senior management pointed to recent reductions in ECP concerns, “[s]ome interviewees indicated that they perceived a chilled environment at ORP and they did not believe that ECP concerns and DPO issues were always addressed or resolved in a timely manner.  Additionally, some interviewees described being told by supervision not to write a DPO because it would be a career limiting decision.” (p. B-21)  Interviewees from both ORP and BNI said they lacked trust in the ECP. (pp. B-22/23)

Most ORP employees believe that constructive criticism is not encouraged. (p. 4)  Within ORP, only 30% of all ORP survey respondents (and 65% of managers) feel that they can openly challenge decisions made by management. (p. B-21)  In BNI/URS, the numbers are 45% of all respondents and 75% of managers. (p. B-22)

“The statement that management does not tolerate retaliation of any kind for raising concerns was agreed to by approximately 80% of the ORP, . . . 72% of the BNI and 80% of the URS survey respondents.” (pp. B-21-22)  In addition, “Anonymous PIERs [Project Issues Evaluation Reports] are used a lot because of fear of retaliation.” (p. B-23)  

All in all, hardly a ringing endorsement of the WTP SCWE.

Decision Making, Corrective Action and Compensation

Safetymatters readers know of our long-standing interest in how SC is reflected in these key artifacts.

Decision Making

“Interviewees provided some examples of where decision making was not perceived to reflect the highest commitment to safety”  Examples included downgrading or elimination of assessment findings, the margin of safety in corrective action plans and the acceptable level of risk for the project.  (p. B-9)  Looks like there's some room for improvement in this area.

Corrective Action

Within BNI, there are positive comments about the corrective action process but the assessment team “observed a lack of accountability for a backlog of corrective actions at a PIRB [Performance Improvement Review Board] meeting.  There is a perceived lack of accountability for corrective actions in timeliness, ownership, and quality, ...” (p. B-16)

“[O]nly about 18% of all ORP interviewee respondents believed that employees are encouraged to notify management of problems they observe and that there is a system that evaluates the problem and makes a determination regarding future action.” (p. 13)

Plenty of room for improvement here.


In the area of compensation, it appears some rewards for Bechtel are based on SC behaviors. (p. B-8)  We consider that a very positive development.

Concerns Over ORP Working More Collaboratively with Bechtel

On the surface this looks like a positive change: two entities working together to achieve a common goal.  However, this has led to at least two concerns.  First, as described in the report, some ORP personnel believe ORP is abdicating or compromising its responsibility to perform oversight of Bechtel, in other words, ORP is more of a teammate and less of an umpire. (pp. B-4, -9, -14)  Second, and this reflects our perspective, changing the relationship between the entities can result in revised system dynamics, with old performance-oversight feedback loops replaced by new ones.  The rules of engagement have changed and while safety may still be the number one priority, the cultural milieu in which safety is achieved has also changed.

Another complication is caused by the role of Bechtel Corporate.  The report says corporate’s values and goals may not be well-aligned with BNI’s need to prioritize SC attributes and behavior.  This can lead to a lack of transparency in BNI decisions. (pp. 5, 7)  That may be a bit of weasel wording in the report; in more direct terms, corporate’s number one priority is for the money train to keep running.

Bottom Line on SC at WTP 

A strong SC is, in some ways, about respect for the individual.  The concerns that WTP personnel  express about using the ECP or DPO process, or challenging management decisions suggest that the WTP project has a ways to go to inculcate an adequate level of such respect.  More importantly, it doesn’t appear they have made any significant process toward that goal in the last few years.

Morale is an aspect of the overall culture and at the WTP, morale is arguably low because of lack of progress and missed schedules. (pp. 6, B-10)  There is undoubtedly plenty of work to do but on a day to day basis, we wouldn’t be surprised if some people feel their work is not meaningful.

*  DOE Office of Environment, Safety and Health Assessments (now the Office of Independent Enterprise Assessments), “Independent Oversight Follow-up Assessment of Safety Culture at the Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant” (June, 2014).

**  ORP has line management responsibility for the WTP, BNI is the primary contractor and URS Corporation (URS) is a major subcontractor.


  1. Lew,

    The WTP completion trend line is clearly negative - that is the principal take home message from this latest turn of the Sonya Haber, NSC Patent Medicine "skull cap."

    What is most problematic in the Report is the way it manages to retain the artificial separation between matters of Waste Treatment Quality and Design for Protection from Waste related hazards. And as before it is totally silent upon the issues of Program Direction and strategy for the management of the inherent uncertainty in the Tank Waste.

    My conclusion would be that what this latest review demonstrates is that no amount of examination of the Safety Culture tail can result in wagging the Bechtel Corporate dog.

  2. Lew,
    This has become too painful to watch!

    A man shows up at a health club carrying a bullwhip. He asks the receptionist, "Do you have any rowing machines?"

    Pretty quick the people using the rowing machines are going to get tired of this treatment. In fact, the consequences are probably already irreversible.

    Its just beyond me how somebody in the chain of command says, "This is working so well! Lets do some more!"

  3. This whole imbroglio started when an employee challenged management, arguably a mission-related dust-up. In response, the employee was exiled to a basement, instant fodder for project critics and opportunistic politicians.

    The subsequent SCWE discussion quickly detached from the mission, viz., doing something about aging, leaky tanks full of radioactive glop that is, or will be, pluming its way to the Columbia River (unless the tanks explode first).

    The reality DOE and its contractor ignored was that when a socio-political hot button such as “bad safety culture” gets pushed, it can take on a life of its own. DOE’s efforts to stonewall or ignore the issue have backfired. Now when a garbage can explodes at the waste warehouse in NM, the local antis are all over it as a “culture” issue.


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