Shipyard Moves to Correct Ignored Safety Problems

Times Staff Writer

To combat its image as an unsafe place to work, the Long Beach Naval Shipyard has acted to correct some longstanding safety problems that led to an unsatisfactory rating by Navy inspectors early this year.

Although shipyard managers declined to comment on specifics recently, they generally confirmed that two extensive in-house equipment inspections have been launched and a number of administrative programs initiated to enforce safety regulations.

"There is a concerted effort to look at (safety) and give it top priority," said Joe Walsh, a union safety official who had complained that shipyard managers were ignoring his warnings about hazards.

"The workers are excited. . . . The pace (of change) is very fast, and I think they are attempting to correct some serious deficiencies."

The Long Beach yard has about 5,100 workers and is the city's second-largest employer.

The naval inspector general's office conducted a review last January and branded the yard with the first unsatisfactory safety rating given to one of the nation's eight naval shipyards since 1980.

Inspection reports obtained by The Times revealed that many of the shipyard's heavy industrial machines lacked operator guards and that spray painters were not being monitored for exposure to toxic lead. So few workers were wearing safety goggles and hearing-protection muffs that inspectors stopped counting the violations on the second day of their nine-day tour, according to the reports.

The Times also disclosed several internal shipyard documents indicating that managers had turned a deaf ear to employees' repeated warnings about safety problems.

In all, the inspector general's office cited the yard for 518 workplace violations and 16 deficiencies in administrative policies. Yard records show that at least one worker has lost a finger, one has lost a leg and others have suffered high-voltage electrical shocks, hearing loss or eye burns since fiscal 1985.

Shipyard managers say they have rectified all but 17 of the workplace shortcomings, and those should be remedied by next month.

The shipyard's internal safety office is conducting a detailed inspection of major buildings, managers say. And an industrial hygienist is scheduled to conduct a monthlong inspection beginning today.

Other actions have included:

Temporary reassignment of Safety Chief Lynn Bettencourt, who was the yard's top safety official during last January's inspection and at the time of three previous reviews that rated the yard as satisfactory. Bettencourt has been assigned to a special project aimed at preparing the yard for a new review by the inspector general's office that could come as early as January. His regular duties have been assumed by a subordinate, and yard administrators have not indicated when, or if, Bettencourt will return to the safety chief job.

Establishing a hot line to the yard's safety office so employees can easily report hazards. The shipyard commander, Navy Capt. Larry D. Johnson, recently described the hot line as an "outstanding idea" that resulted from a meeting with shipyard labor union leaders. Walsh said the idea had been suggested for years, but managers balked.

Ensuring that all workers wear hearing-protection muffs and safety glasses. In addition, all managers and supervisors are going to receive additional safety and health training.

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