PIKETON — The private company handling the dismantling of the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant – commonly referred to as the A-Plant – in Piketon, Flour-BWXT (which bills itself as “FBP”) is in the midst of a feud with United Steelworkers, Local 1-659, which represents many of the workers toiling to tear down the massive, defunct plant and, at least according to announced plans, complete any needed environmental cleanup.
The dispute seems to center around a mandatory reduction in workforce beginning the week of July 4 being called for by the company. According to union local president John Knauff, FBP leadership has not said how many people will be laid off or for how long. In a letter sent to Bob Smith, new FBP site project director, Knauff said the layoffs violate his union’s collective bargaining agreement with FBP. In comments to The Daily Times, Knauff said the layoffs were precipitated by the company going over budget on its activities at the site. That is not at all the case, according to Jack Williams, manager of public outreach for FBP.
Williams said employees currently work 10 hours a day, four days a week. “The July 4th four-day work week, with two scheduled holidays (leaving only two scheduled workdays), creates an inefficient working scenario,” Williams said in a prepared statement. “In the past, FBP implemented a voluntary shutdown for the July 4th week. Last year the decision was made, and policies updated, to adopt a holiday week project shutdown. All non-essential employees, including members of the bargaining units, are included in this decision.”
Williams added changes were formally communicated to the bargaining units in October 2017. Knauff contends FBP is attempting to coerce employees into taking what he calls valuable vacation time, and asked his membership to report any instances of alleged strong-arming.
In the meantime, FBP is bragging about its current safety record at the plant site.
“We are proud of our safety record and our worker involvement in completing our hazardous mission work for the U.S. DOE at the PORTS site,” said Bob French, FBP Environmental Safety and Health manager. “FBP also dedicates about one out of four workers to our Environment, Safety and Health organization. This provides for a proactive and continuous hazard identification and protection process in all our work.
“Most importantly, our entire leadership team and workforce is dedicated to the safety of our work environment,” he added. “The highest value is placed on ensuring our workers are going home in the same safe and healthy condition they came to work with each day.”
Points FBP is touting include:
— A workforce Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) injury and illness rate for 2018 that is less than 0.25 per 100 workers, more than 10 times less than the OSHA-provided industry average of about 3 per 100 workers
— Zero “days away from work” injuries or illnesses in 2018
— 3.5 million hours of safe work since experiencing a lost workday injury
— Received two Ohio Bureau of Workman’s Compensation Site Safety Awards in 2018
Again, in a prepared statement, FBP stated the Department of Energy, which owns the Piketon site and contracts with FBP, “completed a Safety Conscious Work Environment Independent Assessment of the FBP workforce and concluded a very strong safety culture had been established, and it was greatly improved since the last assessment in 2013.”
According to FBP: “Every worker contacted stated the site’s work safety and culture was strong, and they were fully empowered to stop, and would stop, any unsafe activity, without any fear of reprisals.”
Again, according to FBP, former United Steel Workers (USW) Union President Herman Potter stated that “PORTS’ workforce is poised to be ‘Best in (DOE) Complex’ with regards to a positive, enabled, safe environment to work.”
Although he was not asked directly regarding FBP’s safety claims, Knauff almost certainly would not agree with those statements. FBP has drawn strong opposition to its plans to construct what it calls a permanent on-site waste disposal facility. Vocal opponents term that facility a radioactive dump. Grassroots activist Vina Colley alleges FBP workers are being exposed to dangers of which they are not being fully informed.
“I’m not at all satisfied that our people are totally safe out here,” Knauff told The Daily Times.
Besides constructing the waste facility, FBP currently is working primarily on the demolition of one of the many humongous buildings at the Piketon site. Knauff claimed to reach certain performance bonuses, management is rushing demolition of that building, tearing things down in “a helter-skelter” fashion. He alleges the result is workers are being exposed to contaminants they otherwise would not have to face.
“There is no systemic approach to the demolition,” Knauff alleges. “They have created a highly contaminated area.”
Reach Tom Corrigan at 740-353-3101 ext. 1931