Savannah River Site consistently underestimated worker injuries and illnesses that were significant enough to be reported to the Department of Energy, a government audit revealed.
Nearly 28 percent of 93 selected employee injury and illness cases in 1995 were underreported or incorrectly classified as non-work related, the Department of Energy's Office of Inspector General said.
Other federal defense sites were found to have the same problem.
But an SRS official on Friday blamed confusing federal regulations for the inadequate reporting.
"The classification of injuries is not very well understood," said Walt Loring, manager of safety and health programs for Westinghouse Savannah River Co. "Employers across the country have difficulty applying and interpreting the rules."
That's especially true when it comes to the less serious injuries that are not always clearcut, he said.
The Energy Department keeps statistics on safety and health at its nuclear facilities to ensure worker safety programs work like they should. Without accurate information such programs can be undermined, the Inspector General wrote.
"This underreporting occurred because contractor personnel did not obtain sufficient...information relating to the injury or the illness, or they did not properly interpret (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) reporting requirements," the audit found.
In one case, an SRS security guard was doing a half-mile fitness evaluation run at the plant when he suffered chest pains. The man later had to go through angioplasty, a medical procedure to clear a blocked vessel.
Wackenhut Services Inc. improperly classified his injury as non-work related, blaming it on the man's eating habits and lack of exercise, the Inspector General said.
Since the audit, SRS has agreed to interpret federal OSHA rules more conservatively. In recent months, staffers have pored over three years of injury data to reclassify cases, Mr. Loring said.
"And even then we were five times better than the private industry," he said.
SRS nuclear operators suffer one-fifth the number of injuries their peers in the private industry sustain. Construction workers at the South Carolina nuclear weapons plant are two to three times safer, Mr. Loring said.
The plant just underwent a voluntary safety review by a team from the Energy Department's headquarters in Washington and was found to be in compliance with OSHA rules, he said.
Audits dating back to 1990 show that Energy Department facilities have a habit of underreporting worker injuries, the Inspector General report said.