Federal safety inspectors today proposed fines totaling $4.2 million against Bath Iron Works for conditions they said endangered the shipyard’s thousands of workers, including exposure to asbestos and raw sewage.
The proposed fines were announced by John A. Pendergrass, assistant secretary of labor for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, who said a six-month investigation by OSHA revealed “a complete breakdown in the shipbuilder’s safety and health program.”
Agency investigators who inspected the shipyard in May documented more than 3,000 instances in which the shipyard allegedly failed to meet federal standards, Pendergrass said in a statement relayed through the OSHA office in Boston.
“Our enforcement action is an appropriate response to an unacceptable situation,” he said. “The working conditions at Bath are a serious threat to people employed at the shipyard.”
“The company has ignored several previous OSHA citations and even its own written safety and health guidelines,” he added, “despite repeated requests from its workers for proper safeguards.”
Company spokesman Jim McGregor called the fine “grossly excessive and not consistent with the shipyard’s demonstrated efforts and improved trends in the areas of employee safety and industrial health.”
OSHA officials “create an unfortunate impression that there’s a real unsafe work site down here,” he added, “and we do not think that’s the case.”
Bath President William E. Haggett planned to hold a news conference this afternoon at the shipyard to respond to the report.
The company has 15 working days to contest citations and proposed penalties before the independent Occupational SAfety and Health Review Commission.
Pendergrass said the OSHA citations involve a wide range of unsafe practices, including:
- The detection of asbestos-laden dust with readings of up to 40% of the dust content in work areas that had been deemed free of the toxic material by supervisors.
- Employees engaged in on-ship plumping repairs were routinely sprayed with raw sewage because the company refused to pre-drain the lines or provide personal protective equipment.
- Workers were required to enter confined spaces inadequately tested for oxygen deficiencies, flammable vapors and toxic concentrations.
- Proper respirators were unavailable to employees involved in tasks such as removing asbestos, spraying epoxy paints or cleaning with toxic solvents.
- Radar and microwave antennas were routinely tested with workers in close proximity, exposing them to radiation.
- Employees routinely worked around unprotected gears and other mechanical moving parts, ungrounded electrical wires and unguarded floor openings and scaffolds.
- The company erected a new type of prefabricated scaffolding that it knew was defective after assuring OSHA that the equipment would not be used until repairs were made.
John Chavez, a spokesman for the U.S. Labor Department regional office in Boston, said the fine proposed against the company would be the largest ever to be levied against a single employer. He said the most severe previous penalty was proposed in the collapse of a building in Bridgeport, Conn., last April but that liability in that still-pending case is shared by more than one employer.
Bath Iron Works is a major Navy contractor with a reputation for delivering ships ahead of schedule and under budget.