U.S. Army Chemical Materials Activity
Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md.
Two Army organizations responsible for the safe storage and handling of stockpiled chemical weapons achieved one-year recordable injury rates of zero in June of this year. Deseret Chemical Depot, located in Utah, and Blue Grass Chemical Activity, located at Blue Grass Army Depot in Kentucky, are both subordinate units of the U.S. Army Chemical Materials Activity, headquartered at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration defines a recordable injury as any work-related injury that requires treatment above first aid; is diagnosed as significant by a licensed healthcare professional; or that results in loss of consciousness, death, days away from work, restricted work or transfer to another job. The recordable injury rate is a 12-month rolling average among all the organization’s employees. For military organizations, the rate is based on injuries to Department of Defense civilians.
The safety record achieved by DCD and BGCA more closely resembles the risks associated with working in the white-collar financial sector than the hazardous waste disposal industry, which has an industry-wide RIR of 3.6.
DCD is a former CMA installation that once stored the nation’s largest and most diverse chemical weapons stockpile. That stockpile was safely eliminated in February 2012 at the Tooele Chemical Agent Disposal Facility, a chemical agent incineration facility located on the installation. After the safe elimination of the chemical weapons stockpile, the depot focused on the handling and monitoring of hazardous and agent-contaminated waste in preparation for the turnover of the installation to the nearby Tooele Army Depot in July 2013.
The depot workforce steadily decreased in size, from about 400 employees prior to stockpile elimination; then dropping to 250 in June 2012; 130 in March 2013; and 30 on July 11, 2013, when the depot was transferred from CMA to TEAD.
During the 12-month period in which the zero RIR was achieved, DCD employees completed the delivery of thousands of barrels of chemical agent-contaminated waste materials from storage structures to the Drum Ventilation System Sorting Room located in the storage area. There, workers monitored, sorted and categorized the waste for disposal. The waste was generated over the course of 70 years of chemical weapons storage and disposal at DCD.
With CMA’s chemical weapons disposal mission at DCD complete, depot employees were handed the task to clean and monitor all former chemical storage structures to ensure compliance with the depot’s Resource Conservation and Recovery Act permits. Employees cleaned and monitored 208 storage igloos and 34 warehouses that had formerly housed chemical agents. During the same period, employees were required to prepare all of the depot’s equipment for turn in. Every piece of equipment, from computers to forklifts to modular trailers, was inspected and inventoried.
The activities were a significant change from the work the employees were accustomed to prior to stockpile elimination. And with change came added risk. Leadership invested early on in work activities involving lifting and moving equipment.
DCD experienced an initial increase in its RIR as it transitioned from chemical weapons storage operations to closure operations, but the safety culture embraced by employees enabled them to identify new risks and react quickly. Individuals donned personal protective equipment even when moving simple things like pallets because there are preservatives in the wood that can cause skin irritation. Employees and leadership learned that just as they needed PPE for chemical operations, they needed it for standard operations. As the months rolled by without a recordable injury, employees began to see that the goal of achieving a zero RIR was within reach. Leadership emphasized to the workforce that nothing they were doing was worth the risk of life or limb. It was a continual focus on safety and never letting down their guard.
While DCD employees spent the last year preparing for closure following completion of the stockpile destruction mission there, the 121 employees at BGCA stored and managed a chemical weapons stockpile comprised of 523 tons of weaponized chemical agent. BGCA employees are responsible for the safe and secure storage of one of the nation’s two remaining chemical weapons stockpiles, which are scheduled for destruction under the DoD’s Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternatives program. Among the chemical weapons in the custody of BGCA are the nation’s last remaining stockpiled nerve agents.
BGCA employees routinely monitor the chemical storage igloos using Real Time Analytical Platforms — vehicles equipped with chemical agent monitoring equipment — to check for leaking munitions. When required, BGCA employees conduct leaker isolation and overpack operations inside the storage igloos. Additionally, the activity operates its own warehouse and maintenance facility where PPE is cleaned, inspected and repaired. The activity also maintains its own self-contained breathing apparatuses.
The Blue Grass stockpile will be destroyed by ACWA’s Blue Grass Chemical Agent-Destruction Pilot Plant, which is under construction. BGCA employees will perform many tasks in support of the destruction effort, and training on unique equipment to be used for M55 rocket separation operations is now underway. Likewise, facilities in the chemical weapons storage area are being upgraded to prepare for increased use.
With all the construction going on, mitigating risk and safely executing the many tasks necessary to the unit’s mission can only be accomplished by a professional workforce. Employees are full partners with leadership in the safety process. An employee safety committee meets regularly to discuss employee safety concerns and elevate issues and recommendations to leadership. Additionally, safety suggestion boxes are placed in various locations in the activity operations area. The boxes generate excellent suggestions that are individually logged and tracked.
The cross-pollination of safety ideas among various CMA elements was one of the factors that enabled their workforces to excel. For employees and leadership at both DCD and BGCA, their safety achievement can be attributed to teamwork.