Experience & Knowledge Gained From Contracting with the U.S. DOE: A Snapshot in History

By J. David Smith

The US DOE is a federal government entity that carries as many opinions and public perceptions with it as there are colors of the visual light spectrum. To one group, it’s an enigma unto itself. To another group, it’s a place cloaked with mystery and immersed in deep controversy. Others see it as a call of duty and a matter of national security. Then there are those who call it “home.” Regardless as to what philosophical thoughts and affections individuals or groups may align themselves with regarding the entity itself, and irrespective of what federal sites those individuals or groups may find themselves working on, each of the sites share a common denominator. This common denominator is the ability to perpetually provide a fertile environment for unique, ever-developing, educational and learning experiences to virtually any participant with an open mind and an eager commitment to learn.

For a number of years, and since its conception in 1997, various elements of corporate leadership found within JD & Associates, LLC have been entrenched and immersed in various D&D projects scattered throughout the DOE federal complex, including numerous nuclear facilities both of foreign and domestic origin.

Due to matters of national security, the specific federal facility as well as the specific location within that footprint cannot be mentioned within the construct of this article.

Project Details
Scope of Work

Performing one Scope of Work (SOW) in particular, the company was entrenched and immersed in fiduciary contractual management duties on a particular DOE nuclear facility site footprint. Within the footprint itself, the SOW found within the contract/work package involved the use of heavy equipment to assist in the D & D of equipment used in the processing of old nuclear components. From a collection of evidence gathered from sources consisting of but not limited to retired facility workers, old facility data, and process knowledge, and due to the manner in which the old equipment was used in the processing of old nuclear components, the equipment was presumed to be contaminated on both the interior and exterior with radioactive elements that could have the potential to become airborne. The equipment was also thought to be potentially contaminated with beryllium. If not executed properly, this particular SOW had buried within it the potential to become an exploding powder keg of nightmares for both public relations and all DOE federal nuclear facility personnel working in close proximity to the contractual footprint.

Characterization via RADCON Survey

The first step in the process was to characterize the old equipment used in the processing of old nuclear components through a RADCON Survey. The potential impact on human health was determined through facility footprint process knowledge. The footprint reconnaissance process established numerical values through the use of smears and personnel sampling pumps that looked very similar to industrial hygiene sampling pumps (known then as personnel activity monitors or PAMs). The evidence gathered was then qualified and quantified as to the specific type of radiation, the potential for airborne radioactivity, and the potential for radioactive surface contamination thought to be present on the inside and outside of the old equipment.

Survey of Beryllium Levels

The second step in the process was to survey the beryllium levels on the old equipment. Again, the potential impact on human health was determined through facility footprint process knowledge. The footprint reconnaissance process established numerical values through the use of smears and industrial hygiene surveys for beryllium using personnel sampling pumps. The evidence gathered was then qualified and quantified by establishing numerical values for the surface contamination of beryllium and for the potential presence for airborne beryllium contamination. Once the first and second steps in the process determined that the numerical values for both beryllium and radiation were below the federal and DOE facility regulatory Vvalues, the next step in the process could begin.

Misting Process to Keep Contamination ALARA

The third step in the process involved the use of the heavy equipment and a “wetting or misting process” to keep all potentials for both airborne beryllium and airborne radioactivity contamination as low as reasonably achievable, or ALARA. The heavy equipment would disassemble the old equipment used in the processing of old nuclear components, separate it, scoop it up, then dump it into awaiting sea-land containers strategically staged within the site footprint.

Work-Smart Practices

For the SOW, Integrated Safety Management Systems (ISMS) principals and work-smart practices were implemented and integrated following U.S. Department of Energy Documents SP610-001, Integrated Safety Management System and Attachment 1, Integrated Safety Management System Description Document, and closely followed OSHA, NIOSH, and ACGIH Program Standards and Guidelines.

Tools of the Trade

The industrial hygiene and RADCON equipment used on the project to detect, control and minimize associated airborne particulates and chemical contaminants risks and hazards to all workers included, but was not limited to:

  • Drager Elf, SKC, MSA, and GilAir – 3 / Gil-Air – 5 Area (2 l/min) and Personal (2 l/min) sampling pumps;
  • Casella CEL-350 dBadge Personal Noise Dosimeter;
  • QUESTemp WBGT Personal Heat Stress Monitor for physiological heat stress monitoring;
  • Physiological pulse count measurements
  • Body core temperature readings using ear thermometers;
  • Radiation badges; and
  • Radioactive shielding, as required by contract work packages and project control AHA’s.

Daily utilization of SH & E tools were used to identify, control and minimize associated project health and safety risks and hazards to all workers. These tools included, but are not limited to:

  • Portable cool-down tents;
  • Portable circulating fans;
  • Portable liquid water vapor circulating misting fans;
  • Honda portable generators;
  • Portable ice-filled coolers containing water and/or Gatorade to prevent and combat against heat stress situations;
  • Inspected and approved 100-foot extension cords with attached GFCI’s;
  • Lock-Out/Tag-Out (LOTO) HAZCOM equipment;
  • Heavy equipment with proper Inbound and outbound equipment inspection forms;
  • Visual verification of proper site-specific work zone boundary control postings and HAZCOM;
  • Site boundary control tape;
  • Site access control points; and
  • Proper site-specific PPE as required by contract work packages and project Hazard Assessments (HA’s).
Working with Contracts
Reducing Risk

As with any DOE contract, the lifeblood and foundation should be rooted and grounded in the foundational principals established in Integrated Safety Management Systems (ISMS) – Behavioral Based Safety. If ISMS is the “contract motor,” then the activity hazard assessment (a.k.a. job hazard analysis) found imbedded within the ISMS system should be the drive shaft of the contract. Along with a top-to-bottom and bottom-to-top corporate commitment to work-smart practices, environmental, safety and health principals, and working in complete concert with the core foundational principals established in ISMS – Behavioral Based Safety, field research has proven time and again that it will reduce risk; worker’s comp from an insurance risk management/loss control perspective; protect and save lives; and reduce overall contract costs. It just makes common, contractual sense to implement these principals and practices.

Instilling a Post-Modern Safety Culture

Any corporation that has been around long enough in the DOE world will state that perhaps the most challenging situation is transforming a WWII/Cold War safety culture often managed by fear, into a post-modern safety culture empowered by positive energy, contractual awards, and professional, corporate recognition. When a corporation has developed a professional reputation and identity for being safe, others can’t help but see and take notice. Conversely, when a corporation has developed a professional reputation for being careless, reckless, and has a litany of OSHA/DOE/federal facility ESH and IH violations, others can’t help but see and take notice as well. It’s just the way the contract game is played.

Through positive ISMS leadership, change in corporate safety culture takes place in two ways:

  1. Change grows from the nutrient-rich soil to the surface as shifting economic and social events weave their way into the foundational framework of a corporation.
  2. Change also flows from the foundational framework of a corporation on the surface down to the nutrient-rich soil as leaders recognize the occurrence of inevitable change taking place in the world, and mold those changes to serve the best interests of the corporation and everyone who is part of it. Over time, a positive change in corporate safety culture can and will take place under the right corporate leadership.

A corporation lives, and dies, by its corporate commitment to EHS. What ultimately determines its longevity, or its eventual bankruptcy, is the commitment or lack thereof to EHS core principals & practices.

Fiduciary Matters

In today’s DOE market, corporations are all too intimately familiar with the world of the fixed-price contract. Due to fiduciary matters beyond the scope of control for most commercial corporate entities and DOE federal facilities, corporate contracts are not what they used to be. Case-in-point: long gone are the days when corporations had a 40 to 45% mark-up and the commercial or DOE prime-contractor could be charged $120 per hour. In today’s commercial world, it’s much different. Depending on which site groups or individuals are working and in which state, the going rate for the past few years has been anywhere from 8 to 12% made per person on the corporate contract, and 20% or less made on the overall corporate contract. That is good…until the calculus of the contract is examined in detail. By the time a corporation pays workers comp insurance, health insurance, payroll taxes, etc., it is quickly discovered that a minimum of 10% per person is not being made.

Additionally, if a corporation is paying an employee $25 an hour, the billable rate to the client or prime contractor is at least $75 an hour just to cover the cost of that worker. It’s not that the subcontractor is greedy, it’s just the simple, fundamental cost of doing business in today’s marketplace. Until market economic conditions change, these are the only cards to be played in the game.

Corporations must be acutely aware of their “purse strings.” Another case in point: a number of years ago, certain corporate entities had notorious reputations for targeting other corporations known to play fast and loose with their corporate earnings and finances. Groups associated with these corporate entities would pay a visit to the contract footprint and RFP bid winners in a seemingly non-threatening manner, and at an unannounced time. They would tell the RFP bid winners that a certain SOW needed to be performed outside of the scope of the original bid, and asked them if they were interested in performing it right on the spot. Initially looking like it was a great opportunity for the corporation, the RFP bid winner would agree to the SOW. When asked about payment for the new scope, the groups responsible for putting the initial bid out on the street would tell the bid winners to go ahead and perform the new SOW and payment arrangements would be made upon completion. The bid winner would naively comply. The action concluded with a number of corporations receiving pennies on the dollar and being handed a check for $100,000 after performing the SOW in good faith—which cost $2 million or more to complete. The end result was a number of well-established corporations filing for Chapter 11 and going out of business permanently. Since that time, the situation has been for the most part, by all accounts, rectified. It does however make a compelling business point, and a strong statement regarding business practices.

It is a wise business practice, and a strongly advised idea, to never, under any circumstances, perform any SOW without getting it reviewed, agreed to, and having both parties signed by a respectable corporate attorney. It matters not under what good faith pretense the scope is performed under. It pays to be smart.

It is also a wise business practice to make sure that a corporation does not paint itself in a corner with regard to contractual matters agreed upon as related to the activity hazard assessments (JHAs). If not cautious and acutely aware of the potential for this change condition to arise, a corporation may find itself with an accelerated pace for conducting SOW fiduciary responsibilities which it agreed to perform in the AHAs.

These actions could create the perfect conditions for illnesses, accidents and serious injuries to occur unnecessarily. It is important for the corporation performing the SOW to allow plenty of time to safely perform the various tasks required under the contract in a safe manner and in concert with keeping the agreed upon schedule.


 About the author:

J. David Smith is CEO/COO/Owner of JD & Associates, LLC, an industrial hygiene and environmental health and safety firm in the environmental, engineering, construction, and technical consulting industries.

Since 1997, JD & Associates has worked in both DOE and commercial working environments performing project oversight as corporate senior site industrial hygiene manager, corporate senior site safety, SH&E manager, and corporate senior site environmental manager. The company has ensured work was performed in accordance with appropriate behavioral-based integrated Safety management systems (ISMS) principals and industry best practices, while complying with industrial hygiene and behavioral based safety-driven OSHA, NIOSH, and ACGIH program standards and guidelines.  

JD & Associates, LLC expertise began with a unique combination of skill sets handling multiple tasks and performing several safety and health positions simultaneously. Corporate skill sets, talents, and abilities include but are not limited to: air emissions inventory reporting; discharge monitoring reports; solid and hazardous waste reporting; conducting area and personnel sampling and monitoring for occupational safety and health (OSH) and environmental safety and health (ES & H) conditions located both within and outside project footprints of federal, state and commercially regulated facilities; conducting extensive personnel training; and generating detailed compliance/non-compliance facility inspection reports.