PAWTUCKET - Lou Wims worked for years at the Metals and Controls division of Texas Instruments Inc. in Attleboro, rising from a plumber's helper to a facilities manager responsible for maintaining the local plant.
When he died from lung cancer in 1998, his family had no reason to suspect his cancer might have stemmed from his employment at the plant, which manufactured fuel for nuclear reactors.
Now his daughter, Jenna Wims Hashway, 49, is using her legal background to spread the word to lawyers, cancer victims and their families that help is available.
As a judicial law clerk to Chief Justice Paul A. Suttell of the Rhode Island Supreme Court, the Pawtucket resident cannot perform legal work on behalf of clients. But recently Wims penned a detailed article for the Rhode Island Bar Journal about her father's and other nuclear workers' cases explaining how to access a federal program designed to help defense workers afflicted with cancer.
The Attleboro plant manufactured nuclear fuel for the Navy from 1952 to 1967 and continued fabricating nuclear fuel for government research reactors until 1981. The TI complex later underwent a massive environmental cleanup and was converted into an industrial park.
Former TI workers who contracted certain types of cancer and meet other criteria can qualify for compensation and medical payments under the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program.
However, few workers knew about the program until The Sun Chronicle began publishing stories about the former nuclear site and U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy, D-Brookline, raised questions about the company's response.
According to the U.S. Labor Department, which administers the program, at least 400 claims from former TI workers have been approved with payments totaling more than $35 million.
Hashway said neither she nor any members of her family suspected that her father's cancer might be work-connected until they received a letter from Texas Instruments Inc. in February alerting families to the availability of a federal program to aid former atomic workers with cancer.
"I don't think it had occurred to any of us that his employment had put him at risk," Hashway said. "In fact, until the letter arrived from TI and I did some independent research, I had no idea TI worked with nuclear fuel. I thought they made watches and calculators."
Hashway's article explains the working of the federal program set up to compensate defense workers who toiled at dangerous jobs, often without adequate knowledge, on vital Cold War-era weapons projects. The federal law offers compensation up to $150,000 to employees of government contractors, whose illnesses are as likely as not caused by exposure to radiation.
In 2010, the federal government designated the Attleboro plant as a "special exposure cohort" for anyone who worked at the location at least 250 days between 1952 and 1967, making it easier for those workers to obtain compensation.
Hashway and her siblings applied for and obtained approval on a claim they filed on behalf of their late father.
Cancer victims and their families do not need to hire a lawyer to apply for compensation or medical benefits. But Hashway said some families may choose to seek legal advice and guidance from a lawyer. She said she wrote the article to put information about the program into the hands of families and their attorneys.
"My hope is that everyone who qualifies for the fund is made aware of its existence, so that they can decide whether to pursue a claim," she said. "The process is pretty straightforward, but it can be complicated by the passage of time - medical records and other documentation may no longer exist. I hope local attorneys will assist those who may need help in submitting a claim, and I hope my article will provide a useful guide to the process."
Former workers and their families can apply for benefits by contacting the Department of Labor's New York Resource Office.