National Steel & Shipbuilding Co. was cited Wednesday by a federal safety agency for 19 violations that carry fines totaling $62,800 stemming from a July 10 accident that killed six men and injured six others when a steel personnel basket that was being lowered by a crane plunged to a ship's deck.
Officials of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration said the agency has also launched a comprehensive safety inspection of the entire shipyard, the city's largest, which could result in additional fines.
Cause of Accident Not Given
John Hermanson, director of the local federal OSHA office, said the agency's investigators were unable to determine the actual cause of the accident. But he added that crane operator Hugh Humphrey, 65, "was not at fault."
Hermanson said OSHA expressly prohibits the use of crane-lifted personnel baskets except for "extraordinary situations."
"This was not an extraordinary situation," Hermanson said. "There were other means available to transport these workers safely." He charged that Nassco's decision to use the personnel basket on the night of the accident was "a willful" violation of federal safety standards.
Specifically, Hermanson said the tragedy could have been averted if Nassco management had provided workers with a gangway between the Sacramento, a Navy supply ship that was being overhauled, and a berthing barge that was used to service the ship.
The fatal accident occurred minutes after midnight when the 4-by-6-foot basket carrying 12 men fell 30 feet to a deck on the Sacramento as it was lowered by a crane operated by Humphrey.
Three weeks after the tragedy, Fred Hallett, Nassco vice president and spokesman, blamed the accident on Humphrey, who has been on paid leave ever since. Hallett said an inspection of the electric crane revealed no mechanical problems and charged that the accident was caused by operator error.
On Wednesday, Hallett noted that the OSHA investigation found no mechanical problems with the crane, but he refused to repeat his earlier charge that Humphrey's negligence caused the accident.
"There have been a series of lawsuits filed since the accident. . . . Given that the matter is now in the courts, it would be inappropriate for me to comment on the cause," Hallett said.
Crane's Use Called Routine
Hallett conceded that the shipyard should have installed a gangway between the two ships, but he added that until the accident happened, the use of crane-lifted personnel baskets was a "routine procedure" in U.S. shipyards.
"This was an industry practice that was commonly used and deemed safe and legal by the industry," Hallett said. "Fed OSHA has now come up with citations that say it was and is illegal. But this is under review by our legal department to see if we did violate the law."
Humphrey could not be reached for comment, but his attorney, Peter Hughes, said he was "elated" for his client by the OSHA findings.
Officials from the seven unions who represent about 2,300 workers at Nassco and who were briefed on the preliminary findings in December could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Since the accident, Nassco had drawn up new safety procedures that clearly define and limit the use of personnel baskets, Hallett said.
Though federal OSHA permits limited use of personnel baskets, there are currently no federal regulations governing the use of crane-lifted baskets in shipyards. A letter from OSHA that accompanied the citations given to Nassco suggested that the shipyard instead follow guidelines established by the American National Standard Institute when transporting workers in baskets.
Safety Belts an Issue
OSHA investigators criticized the shipyard for not providing safety belts on the basket for the workers and for carrying 12 men, rather than six at a time, as recommended by the institute. Other institute guidelines that OSHA said were not followed by Nassco when using a personnel basket include:
- A test lift was not done before the men were transported.
- The access door on the basket opened outward, instead of inward.
- Company officials failed to inspect the crane before lifting the men.
Hallett said the company's new safety policy relating to personnel baskets has a limit on the number of people that can be lifted in a basket, but he added: "I'm not sure that we have agreed that six is appropriate." At the time of the accident, Nassco officials said the basket could have accommodated as many as 15 workers.
Hermanson was also critical of Nassco's decision to use the electric crane involved in the accident to transport workers. The crane's two lines have "free-fall" capability, which allow an operator to drop a load without braking.
"As a matter of prudence, cranes with free-fall capability shouldn't be used to transport personnel baskets," Hermanson said.
Citations Basically Minor
Many of the citations issued against Nassco were relatively minor, like for failure to inspect the crane's bolts and rivets every six months. But the major, or "willful," violations included charges that Nassco improperly modified the crane's electrical and control mechanisms.
OSHA officials said Nassco should have received approval from the crane's manufacturer for the modifications. However, this was disputed by Hallett, who said the company's lawyers are studying the matter to determine whether the manufacturer's approval was necessary for the modifications.
The report released Wednesday ended OSHA's six-month accident investigation. One citation that carried a $10,000 fine was issued because Nassco knowingly allowed Humphrey to operate the crane when company officials were aware that he is colorblind.
"We considered it fairly serious. Some controls are color-coded, including the emergency stop button for the crane. The crane operator is also directed from ground level by people wearing different-colored hard hats. If you can't tell who's directing you to do something, you can't interpret what to do with the load," Hermanson said.
Nassco has 15 working days to pay the fines or contest the citations with OSHA's review commission.
Meanwhile, Hallett said the shipyard welcomes the comprehensive safety review by OSHA so the company can improve its safety programs.
Nassco is a subsidiary of Morrison-Knudsen, of Boise, Idaho.