Monday, December 21, 2009

4 Say Atom Industry Ordered Counseling And Harrassed Them

August 6, 1989
4 Say Atom Industry Ordered Counseling And Harrassed Them

At least four workers who complained about safety and environmental problems at four military nuclear plants run for the Government by private contractors say they were ordered by their superiors to see psychiatrists or psychologists.

The workers and their lawyer all say that they believe the orders came as retaliation for the allegations they made. In two highly publicized cases the allegations against the contractors were confirmed; in the others, they have been rejected.

Harassment Campaigns Charged

The workers all say the implication in the orders that they were suffering from mental problems was part of a long campaign of harassment that included tactics like demotions, ridicule in front of co-workers and threats to revoke the security clearances required for their jobs. Three went to the psychologist or psychiatrists at least once; one refused but fears retaliation for his refusal.

The companies involved deny having ordered the use of health professionals inappropriately.

Workers who have made public allegations of wrongdoing by the Government and its contractors have complained for years that they have been punished for calling attention to problems. The Department of Energy has previously acknowledged to Congress that it has done a poor job of protecting whistle-blowers in the plants it owns. Letter of Complaint

A spokesman for the department, Philip D. Keif, said a response was being prepared to allegations that the department and its contractors were retaliating against employees by referring them to mental health professionals. ''Obviously, we don't employ a policy to harass in such a way,'' he said.

Thomas Carpenter, a lawyer representing the four workers, complained about the referrals in a letter on July 13 to James D. Watkins, the Secretary of Energy.

''The use of psychiatric fitness-for-duty examinations in whatever context essentially has been retaliatory, punishing dissidents by labeling them mentally incapable of service to their country,'' wrote Mr. Carpenter, who is with a watchdog group, the Government Accountability Project. He said the tactic was intended to damage the employees' careers and ''sense of self-worth.'' 'Do You Kick Your Dog?'

One employee, Edwin L. Bricker, operates equipment for processing nuclear materials at the Hanford nuclear reservation in Washington State. He said his sessions with two psychologists included questions like ''How do you feel about your fellow workers, your employer, and do certain things tick you off?''

''They ask, 'How do you feel about your mother? Do you kick the dog?' ''

''I was terribly embarrassed,'' Mr. Bricker said. ''It's humiliating, degrading.''

Representative Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat who has become a specialist on Hanford, said: ''This is an old strategy that goes on in totalitarian countries. It's incredibly grotesque that it's being pursued here.''

Mr. Bricker told Congressional investigators several years ago that while preparing for a tour of Hanford by Gov. Booth Gardner of Washington, he and another worker were ordered to remove contractors' signs warning that an area was contaminated. His assertion was later substantiated. An Assault by Fellow Worker

Mr. Bricker has also made scores of other complaints, saying fires went unreported, a control room was left unattended or staffed by unqualified personnel, and compartments for handling plutonium that were supposed to be sealed had loose windows. Those complaints were rejected by the contractors.

He said he suffered a variety of retaliations, including a physical assault by a fellow worker and assignment to pick up cigarette butts.

When Mr. Bricker was sent to Dr. Booth, Hanford was run by the Rockwell International Corporation. A spokesman for Rockwell referred questions to the Westinghouse Electric Corporation, the current operator, but a spokesman for Westinghouse said the company could not answer questions about events there before it took over.

A spokesman for Westinghouse said Mr. Bricker had in fact been harassed by fellow workers, who feared that attention to the problems might result in shutdown of the plant and the loss of their jobs. But the spokesman said the company had done everything it could to stop such harassment.

The Westinghouse spokesman, L. B. Moore, said the jobs Mr. Bricker could do were limited because he had health problems, including a skin condition that prevented him from wearing the protective clothing needed in radiation areas. ''He may indeed have been put on a cleanup detail,'' he said. Psychologist Saw Others

The psychologist who first saw Mr. Bricker said in a telephone interview that in four and a half years at Hanford, he had seen about six workers after they had complained about safety there. The psychologist, Ray Booth, now with Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center in Boise, said some were referred by managers but others came voluntarily because of the stress of confronting their bosses.

The system of referring workers to him was vulnerable to abuse, he said. But he added, ''If a manager is doing this nefariously, I'm not likely to know about it.''

He said of Mr. Bricker, ''Nothing derogatory came out of my evaluation of him.'' Westinghouse Role in Dispute

Mr. Bricker said he was also ordered to see a psychiatrist by his supervisors after Westinghouse took over the management. Westinghouse asserts that it never ordered Mr. Bricker to see a psychologist, only to go to the Hanford Environmental Health Foundation, a Westinghouse contractor, for a ''comprehensive medical evaluation.'' The reason, according to Westinghouse, was that Mr. Bricker told Westinghouse in writing that he had experienced ''work-caused stress.''

If Mr. Bricker was sent for psychological evaluation, said Mr. Moore, it was a decision by the health clinic. But according to Mr. Bricker, the clinic psychologist said in his notes that Westinghouse requested the psychological evaluation.

Mr. Carpenter, the lawyer for the Government Accountability Project, asserted that the notice for Mr. Bricker to see a psychologist came five hours after Mr. Bricker filed a safety complaint with the Department of Energy. Complaint at Ohio Plant

At a Government weapons plant near Fernald, Ohio, Gene Branham, a heavy equipment operator, said he was ordered to see a psychiatrist in 1985 while he was a union officer involved in contract negotiations. ''They knew exactly what they were doing, timing-wise,'' he said.

As a union official at the plant, the Feed Materials Production Center, Mr. Branham had brought many safety grievances to management's attention, he said. In addition, after he saw an accidental release of uranium into the atmosphere in 1983 and the response that followed, he complained about emergency preparations. The Government now acknowledges that the plant has released uncounted tons of uranium dust into the surrounding area.

Fearing for his job, which he has held since 1953, he agreed to go to the psychiatrist. ''Never for a minute did I feel I wasn't in control of my faculties,'' said Mr. Branham, who is 55 years old. But after being criticized by superiors, being dismissed at one point but later reinstated, and then being referred to the psychiatrist, he said, ''I did wonder if it was worth it - they were making it sort of hard for me.''

Until December 1985 the plant was operated by a subsidiary of NL Industries, NLO. Robert Leidich, a spokesman for NL Industries, said the company now had no record of having requested that Mr. Branham go to a psychiatrist.

Mr. Moore, the spokesman for Westinghouse, which took over the plant in 1986, said that Mr. Branham was ''a highly vocal union leader,'' but that ''he has never been, as far as I know or anyone I've ever talked to, identified as a whistle-blower.'' Rocky Flats Fraud Case

A worker at the Rocky Flats weapons plant near Denver said he was first ordered to see a psychiatrist after he helped expose fraud in a plant shop where Rockwell employees, using Government materials, were building items like grandfather clocks and hardwood staircases. Rockwell, the operator of the plant, eventually paid the Government $150,000, through a reduction in its management fee, to make up for the fraud.

The man, a 40-year-old tool and die maker who has been at Rocky Flats since August 1979, agreed to an interview under the condition that he not be identified. He said that after he made more complaints about lapses in procedures, he was ordered to go for psychiatric help again when Rockwell officials said he was under emotional strain.

Dennis Hurtt, a spokesman for Rockwell, said he could not discuss the issue because ''this is a personnel matter, whether this fellow purports to be a whistle-blower or not.''

Describing the worker as ''a disgruntled employee,'' Mr. Hurtt said, ''The harassment thing is ludicrous.'' Engineer Tells of Problems

In the fourth case, a 30-year veteran of Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory, near Schenectady, N.Y., was in charge of environmental safety and health at the laboratory when he filed a report concerning asbestos contamination, fire protection problems and other safety lapses. The man, an engineer who had worked for years on naval propulsion reactor design, spoke on the condition that his name not be used.

The engineer said that he was demoted and that after seeking re-instatement to his former job, he received unsatisfactory ratings on his performance, was threatened with a salary cut and told to see a psychologist.

Gerry E. Sabian, a spokesman for General Electric, which runs the plant, said the engineer ''is not a whistleblower and there have been no reprisals against him.'' He was removed from the environmental safety and health job because he did not perform satisfactorily, the company said. And, Mr. Sabian said, the engineer was never ordered to see a psychologist.

But the engineer said the company not only ordered him to go, but also gave him the name of the psychologist he was to see. He has refused so far.

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