On March 11, a 9.0 magnitude quake struck Japan and spawned a tsunami. The disasters triggered explosions and fires at the Fukushima nuclear power plant.
There are 104 nuclear reactors in the United States. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission requires that nuclear structures, systems, and components be designed to take into account the most severe natural phenomena historically estimated for the site and surrounding areas.
In the unlikely event of a similar tragedy, U.S. nuclear power plant workers made ill would be covered under the workers' comp system, according to Robert Hartwig, president of the Insurance Information Institute. "Nuclear plant operators procure workers' comp coverage in the open market," he said. "It covers injuries and illnesses associated with exposure to radiation. To my knowledge, there is no exclusion for exposure to radiation to workers."
In the wake of the disasters in Japan, various federal agencies and state governments are taking a closer look at the safety of U.S. plants. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health have teamed up to provide information on the safety of workers potentially affected by nuclear disasters here and in Japan.
As OSHA explains, radiation occurs in low levels as part of everyday life. Residual cosmic radiation in the atmosphere and medical applications such as X-rays and CT scans are examples of the forms of radiation occurrences.
OSHA and NIOSH caution against taking extraordinary measures to prevent exposure to radiation without a known risk. For example, taking potassium iodide pills to protect the thyroid gland can cause intestinal upset, allergic reactions, and other symptoms.
The NRC says it does not expect harmful levels of radioactivity to impact Hawaii, Alaska, the U.S. territories, or the western coast of the United States. In a specially created guidance, NIOSH addressed questions regarding U.S. workers who come in contact with people or items from Japan.
- Airline personnel. Flights crews are not at added risk of exposure to radiation. The Japanese Civil Aviation Authority imposed restrictions to prevent flights from going near the Fukushima power plant, and the CAA and Federal Aviation Administration are requesting flight routes even further away from the plant than what is required. While U.S. aircrews are in Japan, they are encouraged to register and be in contact with the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, which provides information for Americans in Japan.
- Port workers. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection is monitoring all cargo coming from the potentially affected areas of Japan. NIOSH says it is unaware of any potentially hazardous levels of contamination from persons or items coming into U.S. ports. All cargo is screened for radiation. If radioactive material is detected in or on cargo, the CBP has procedures to determine how the cargo will be handled.
- Baggage handlers. NIOSH is unaware of any potentially hazardous levels of contamination in baggage coming from Japan.
- Mail handlers. Again, there is no indication of any potentially hazardous levels of contamination from mail coming from Japan. All mail is being closely monitored by CBP and screened for radiation.
Because there are no reports of potentially hazardous levels of contamination, NIOSH does not advise any occupational groups in the U.S. to wear respirators to handle items.
Protecting from exposure. According to NIOSH, nuclear reactors in the U.S. include many additional safeguards than those in Japan. Additionally, President Obama last month asked the NRC to undertake a comprehensive review of these plants.
Workers at or near nuclear power plants that sustain damage can minimize their exposure to radiation, according to NIOSH. Measures include restricting or limiting entry to and exit from a contaminated area, controlling or minimizing the amount of material dispersed or resuspended in the air, monitoring personnel, and use of protective clothing and equipment.
Good personal hygiene is also suggested to reduce exposure. Frequent hand washing is recommended, especially before eating, drinking, or smoking.
As low as reasonably achievable, or ALARA, practices are mandated for all aspects of radiation exposure at NRC licensed facilities.
NIOSH says ALARA includes striving to achieve levels as far below the dose limits as practical, as well as taking into account the state of technology, economics, and benefits to the public health and safety. Examples include:
- Minimizing the amount of time a worker is exposed.
- Maximizing the distance from the source of exposure.
- Shielding the source of exposure, which can include physical barriers such as a lead shield or personal protective equipment.
Read more at the WorkersComp Forum homepage.
May 2, 2011
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