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Workers need protection

  The health and safety of workers cleaning up the nation's nuclear weapons complex have been badly neglected, according to a study by the Office of Technology Assessment, a research arm of the U.S. Congress. Because of the historic autonomy and secrecy of its atomic mission, the Department of Energy is the only federal agency exempt from regulation by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The agency and its contractors are supposed to enforce OSHA standards, but like concern for the environment, worker safety has long been subordinated to production goals. Now, with weapons production halted, DOE is shifting much of its resources to cleanup. However, the cleanup "cure" could be more harmful than the contamination, the OTA warns. Policies and programs to protect workers are not yet in place despite ambitious plans for environmental restoration at nuclear weapons plants, which could involve as many as 25,000 scientists, engineers and technicians over the next five years. DOE's environmental management office has only one staff person trained in occupational health and safety. The OTA also sounds a fiscal alarm. Weaknesses in DOE's occupational health and safety programs could expose the government to massive liability claims akin to those made by veterans, downwinders and workers exposed to radiation during nuclear bomb building and testing. The 88-page report, Hazards Ahead: Managing Cleanup Worker Health and Safety at the Nuclear Weapons Complex, is available for $5 from the Superintendent of Documents, Box 371954, Pittsburgh, PA 15250-7954 (202/783-3238).