In early March, a Los Alamos National Laboratory electrical worker was knocked off a ladder after accidentally touching a live wire in a ceiling at a radiological lab building.
On May 3, an electrical accident at a lab substation injured nine workers. One of those workers, Julian Trujillo, remains at University of New Mexico Hospital in Albuquerque, badly burned but in stable condition, according to lab and union officials.
These incidents were the latest in a series of electrical accidents at the lab that have drawn scrutiny from the U.S. Department of Energy. Although the agency already had ordered an investigation after the March incident, it now has ordered two separate investigations of Los Alamos National Security LLC, the consortium that oversees the nuclear weapons research facility under contract with the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration.
The Energy Department’s Office of Enterprise Assessments will review potential violations in connection with recent electrical incidents, and a federal Accident Investigation Board will examine the May 3 incident as well as past accidents. The board’s investigation will take at least a month, said Tori Chiri, a spokeswoman for the Los Alamos Field Office of the National Nuclear Security Administration.
“The lab takes electrical safety very seriously, and is taking steps to strengthen safety culture,” lab spokesman Kevin Roark said. “We will work closely and cooperatively with the NNSA Office of Enforcement on their hazardous energy assessment investigation.”
While the lab has a long history of electrical accidents or near misses, such incidents are not unique to LANL. Electrical work is “inherently dangerous,” said a union official who asked not to be identified.
Since 2003, the lab has had at least 11 electrical incidents, some with injuries.
• Trujillo and his co-workers were injured May 3 when an “electrical arc flash” occurred while the crew was maintaining a substation near the lab’s Neutron Science Center at Technical Area 53.
• In March, at Technical Area 55, “an employee received an electric shock while tracing a 277-volt lighting conduit in the ceiling. The employee received a burn to his hand,” according to a lab accident report. All electrical maintenance work was shut down for two days, according to Roark.
• The NNSA investigated four electrical safety events at LANL between October 2010 and January 2011, according to documents. Two involved subcontractors, at least one of whom received a high-voltage electrical shock while doing maintenance on a power supply. Two other events involved Los Alamos National Security workers. “These incidents exposed workers to serious shock, thermal burn and arc-flash hazards,” according to an NNSA notice of violation issued to Los Alamos National Security.
• In 2007, the lab had three electrical equipment failures. No injuries were reported, but one building was evacuated.
• In 2006, a subcontract electrician using a cordless drill to drive in a self-tapping screw to the back of a control center hit a 480-volt system and caused an arc flash. The worker suffered a minor injury.
• In 2003, two subcontractors working on a decontamination project unknowingly came within inches of a live 13.2-kilovolt switch, violating safe-distance standards. Neither subcontractor was injured, but if an electrical arc had occurred, “it would have triggered an explosion and plasma fireball” that would have “incinerated anything within 15 feet,” according to a lab performance report.
• Also in 2003, a lab machinist shocked his upper arm on a welder cart that had been wired incorrectly by a subcontractor. He had minor injuries.
The lab was cited for substandard electrical safety measures two decades ago by the federal government in 1996, when it was operated by the University of California, following two electrical accidents. In one, Efren Martinez was left in a coma after the jackhammer he was using to break up a concrete floor hit a 13.2-kilovolt electrical cable; he never regained consciousness and died in 2009 from his injuries.
The lab has been investigated and fined by the Department of Energy for other worker safety violations, including an incident in 2009 in which workers were exposed to radiation from arsenic and an incident in 2012, when a worker was exposed to beryllium. Also in 2012, the Neutron Science Center and nine homes off lab property were contaminated after a worker opened a container of a highly dispersible radioactive powder.
As for the worker injured in the May 3 electrical accident, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 611 website says he “faces a long and difficult recovery.”
Contact Staci Matlock at 986-3055 or email@example.com.
Help for injured worker
The union has set up a fund to help Julian Trujillo’s family pay for medical expenses. The money goes directly to the family, according to union officials. Donations can be sent via the website youcaring.com; enter “Julian Trujillo” in the search box.