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U.S. Department of Energy, Plutonium glove boxes at Argonne National Labs, unknown, Flickr

Issue Brief

Workplace Exposure

A former Assistant Secretary of Energy (DOE) for Environment, Safety, and Health described America’s nuclear weapons program as one of the David Michaels, Doubt Is Their Product: How Industry's Assault on Science Threatens Your Health (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 214.“most toxic industrial environments on earth, [that] exposed . . . workers to some of the most dangerous materials known to humankind, and produced almost unimaginable quantities of insidious waste.” From the early days of the program, and in spite of the rhetoric of safety, exposure to radiation and dangerous chemicals was widespread. Workers in uranium mines, nuclear plants, and test sites confronted and/or handled a panoply of harmful materials and toxic substances, and operated in hazardous work environments and/or poisoned atmosphere. These workers and soldiers were often unaware of the high risks to their livelihoods posed by their activities, and the government and private contractors shared little to nothing about the dangers or the impact of certain materials on health. Instead, those in power hid behind a shield of secrecy and uncertainty. As long as workers’ mysterious illnesses and diseases could not be definitively traced back to the facilities, mines, or test sites, they did nothing. The uncertainty was aided by a lack of monitoring and insufficient or deliberately suppressed data on occupational exposures. While the 1960s brought more awareness about the risks of workplace exposures and its links to negative health effects for the vast numbers of civilians and military personnel involved in the nuclear weapons complex, it still took decades before the government admitted these risks. Shiloh Krupar, Hot Spotter's Report: Military Fables of Toxic Waste (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Place, 2013), 161.Historically the DOE and its predecessor the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) claimed “sovereign immunity” and actively assisted contractors in opposing work claims of exposure-related illness. Workers pursuing compensation frequently confronted an “iron curtain of information”—their resources unable to win against the combined front of corporations and the U.S. national security agenda.

One way to conceptualize the vast range of potential workplace exposures is to divide workers into two groups: those who received direct exposure to toxic materials, such as miners of radioactive material, soldiers who participated in nuclear tests, and nuclear workers who handled, processed, and/or machined nuclear materials; and those people within the nuclear complex system who were indirectly exposed, such as supervisors, inspectors, support staff, and security. If we move beyond the spatial demarcation of the work site, an expansive third category of exposure emerges, encompassing communities downwind and downstream from nuclear sites and activities, workers that provided off-site services, such as laundering work gear, and the families, homes, and neighborhoods where workers potentially brought home trace hazardous materials on clothing, boots, cars, etc. after their shifts on an everyday basis.
Sepia-toned image of white, male-presenting person with hardhat and pick axe in underground mind

Bill Gillette/U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Underground uranium mining in Nucla, Colorado, May 1972, National Archives and Records Administration

Uranium miners, in particular, faced inadequate safeguards. In the late 1940s, miners wore coveralls and gloves to handle uranium, which was believed to be sufficient in protecting against radiation exposure. As the AEC left safety standards to the states, state regulators often remained silent on dangerous conditions. Workers had no masks, respirators, or protective clothing. Many mines were not properly ventilated, and miners were not issued radiation detectors for their own safety, despite working under harsh conditions. Duncan Holaday of the U.S. Public Health Service verified these issues in his inspections in the 1950s. Holaday added that workers did not receive preliminary medical exams, showers, clean clothes, or clean drinking water. Uranium miners who directly handled the dangerous materials suffered from high doses of toxic substances over an extended period of time. This particularly affected the Dinè (Navajo) nation, as many of these uranium mines had a heavily Native workforce and were located on or near the reservation.

Many facility workers share similar recollections of not being given protective gear or functional dosimeters, and that the latter were often inconsistent in testing levels of radiation exposure. In the early days of the Manhattan Project and the later arms race of the Cold War, officials claimed injuries and contamination of workers were necessary sacrifices. Since government officials only sought to protect workers from the “highest levels” of radioactive exposure, security and regulation measures inadequately protected these workers and prioritized production goals. In general, workers used a variety of equipment and faced widespread contamination of clothing, glassware, tools, soil, and so forth in their everyday work environments. Even where workers wore protective clothing and respirators in compliance with enforced safety regulations, any number of accidents have occurred, ranging from exploding glove boxes to waste storage exposures to highly enriched plutonium, perforated or damaged gloves for handling radioactive materials to incidents where workers directly inhaled irradiated air or were exposed to leakages of radioactive materials. Many workers claim that such accidents and exposures were not always reported, and erroneous information was sometimes put on file.

Other plant and facility workers, while not necessarily directly exposed to radioactive materials, still operated within a radioactive and toxic environment. Inspectors and managers were often exposed due to their own lack of protection as they observed facility operations. Len Ackland, Making a Real Killing: Rocky Flats and the Nuclear West (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 2002), 212.For example, a DOE inspector touring Rocky Flats in 1988 was exposed to plutonium because of inappropriate monitoring and lack of posted safety instructions to wear protective gear. Military and security personnel working in facilities, and those who transported hazardous materials were also likely exposed to varying levels of toxic chemicals and radioactive materials, especially those workers who wore regular clothing and lived in a facility’s hazardous environment for significant periods of time. In addition to civilian personnel of the DOE, members of the military have historically been exposed to toxic materials. The earliest soldiers exposed to harmful radiation were those who participated in above-ground nuclear weapons testing in Nevada in the 1950s and 1960s. During these tests, soldiers were given no significant protection and instructed to head toward ground zero; in the aftermath of these tests, they were then monitored for their levels of exposure to radiation without their knowledge.

Even though some studies have demonstrated links between the toxic environment of nuclear facilities and uranium mines to negative health effects of their workers, many people who experienced workplace exposure have struggled to receive adequate compensation from the U.S. government. For years, agencies such as the AEC and later the DOE refused to recognize these links. Studies conducted by the government were often intentionally kept from the public in the name of security. Government officials claimed that studies did not demonstrate strong enough links between workplace exposure and negative health effects and reiterated there was no need for concern. It is often difficult to provide indisputable proof that workplace exposure directly caused negative health effects because other risk factors cannot be isolated. The government has used this uncertainty to its advantage by putting the difficult burden on the victims to prove they had been harmed by their work environment in order to receive compensation. Because of long latency periods, the uniqueness of the hazards to which they were exposed, and inadequate exposure data, many workers were unable to obtain compensation benefits.

Action on the part of the victims—workers, miners, soldiers, etc.—helped to force the government to change its attitude regarding workplace exposure. More publicity from class action lawsuits led members in the government to publicly admit their failings in regulating mines and facilities. In 1988, soldiers were the first to receive government compensation for participating in above-ground nuclear testing. Several years later, workers in nuclear facilities could apply for compensation. The two main pieces of government legislation that correspond with this era of government responsibility are the 1990 Radiation Exposure Compensation Act  and the 2000 U.S. Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act.  While both of these pieces of legislation have forced some level of government responsibility, the overall effect has been limited: it is still difficult for victims of workplace exposure to prove that they qualify for compensation, and advocacy groups and victims continue to fight for proper compensation and support from the government. In particular, communities downwind and downstream from nuclear weapons plants, mines, tests, and waste dumping sites face significant challenges in obtaining government recognition and concessions for the ongoing harmful legacies of the nuclear weapons program.

Even as workplace standards have tightened dramatically, accidents persist due to ongoing violations of written procedures, work processes, training, and/or lack of safety equipment communication. Rather than racing to win a war, contractors now rush work and cut corners to save money or earn bonuses; otherwise they face fines or are forced to halt work for costly safety reviews. Safety continues to hinge around the myth of DOE and contractor “self-regulation." Secrecy surrounding accidents, inadequate sampling, and U.S. allowance for contractor use of General air monitors are single, fixed, air samplers for assessing internal radiation dose and regulatory compliance. This means contractors can report mean radiation exposures in work areas, which can lead to underestimates. Critics decry the lack of individualized radiation-dose data and lack of cumulative radiation-dose data.general air monitors to assess—and largely underestimate—internal radiation dosages continue to leave workers without the records and proof that they need in order to file for compensation for diseases developed from occupational exposures.


Ackland, Len. Making a Real Killing: Rocky Flats and the Nuclear West. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1999.

Gerber, Michele Stenehjem. On the Home Front: The Cold War Legacy of the Hanford Nuclear Site. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2007.

Iversen, Kristen. Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats. New York: Crown Publishers, 2012.

Krupar, Shiloh R. Hot Spotter's Report: Military Fables of Toxic Waste. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013.

Kyne, Dean and Bob Bolin. “Emerging Environmental Justice Issues in Nuclear Power and Radioactive Contamination.” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 13, no. 7 (2016): 700. Accessed July 29, 2020.

Makhijani, Arjun and Stephen I. Schwartz. “Victims of the Bomb.” Atomic Audit: The Costs and Consequences of U.S. Nuclear Weapons since 1940, edited by Stephen I. Schwartz. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 1998, pp 395–431.

Malin, Stephanie. The Price of Nuclear Power: Uranium Communities and Environmental Justice. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2015.

Michaels, David. Doubt is Their Product: How Industry's Assault on Science Threatens Your Health. Oxford University Press, 2008.

Parascandola, Mark J. “Compensating Cold War Cancers.” Environmental Health Perspectives 110, no. 7 (July 2002): A405-A407. Accessed July 29, 2020.

Pasternak, Judy. Yellow Dirt: An American Story of a Poisoned Land and People Betrayed. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2010.


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