OSHA hits Wisconsin shipyard with $1.4 million fine for lead poisoning of workers

SUPERIOR, Wis. (PAI) — The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) slammed the Fraser Shipyard of Superior, Wis., with a proposed $1.395 million in fines for lead poisoning of its workers, just after one poisoned worker sued the firm in federal court.

The move is no surprise: OSHA had to shut the shipyard several months ago after inspectors found workers suffered from excessive lead poisoning and exposure to other toxic substances, including asbestos, iron oxide, hexavalent chromium, arsenic and cadmium.

OSHA inspectors found excessive levels of lead in workers toiling to repair and retrofit the Herbert C. Jackson, a 690-foot bulk freighter undergoing drydock work at the shipyard, located at the western end of Lake Superior.

Two months after the shutdown, James Holder, 48, a welder and ship fabricator, sued the shipyard in federal court in Wisconsin for unsafe levels of lead exposure. Holder’s suit says dozens of other workers also were exposed to unsafe lead levels, and when they complained about unusual illnesses, the management said they had “nothing to be concerned about.”

OSHA said they did. Lead poisoning leads to anemia, brain damage, kidney defects and gastrointestinal disease.

“Sampling results determined 14 workers had lead levels up to 20 times the exposure limit,” OSHA said on July 29. Tests on more than 120 workers, out of 190 total, found 75 percent had elevated lead levels.

The agency said Fraser engaged in “14 willful egregious health violations for each instance of overexposing a worker to lead,” and five more willful violations for lack of a lead monitoring program, failure to implement a lead compliance program or a respiratory protection program to protect workers and for failing to train workers on how to protect themselves against lead, asbestos and other serious hazards. It also issued another 10 serious violations.

And given the shipyard’s past record for exposing workers to asbestos, OSHA dumped Fraser into its severe violators enforcement program, said agency Administrator Dr. David Michaels, a public health specialist. That’s the program reserved for the worst offenders.

“Fraser Shipyards accepted a contract with a very low profit margin and penalties for delayed completion, but could not meet the schedule without endangering its workers. This employer was unwilling to pay the necessary costs to protect employees from lead exposure,” said Michaels.

“When companies prioritize profits and deadlines over the health and safety of their workforce, it is the workers who pay the price. Law-breaking employers must be held accountable for their unlawful behavior. ” The rehab contract for the freighter is worth $10 million, the separate lawsuit adds.

“Fraser ignored federal regulations, its own corporate safety manuals and worker concerns,” said Ken Atha, OSHA’s regional administrator in Chicago. “Such behavior is unacceptable. No worker should be put at risk from exposure to hazards that can cause permanent health issues to meet a contract deadline.”

In his suit, Holder, represented by pro-worker labor lawyers from Chicago, said the lead exposure started in January when workers started to retrofit the freighter. The suit says medical findings show Holder’s lead levels are more than seven times the level that the federal Centers for Disease Control calls harmful to human health.

It also says the shipyard broke Wisconsin health and safety law by not telling workers about the presence of toxins aboard the ship and then concealing the lead levels. And it says the Minnesota and Wisconsin health departments jointly warned about public health dangers – not just to workers but to their families – of lead overexposure.

“Sadly, when corporations make their profits a priority over safety, it is the innocent workers and their families who are asked to pay the price,” said one of Holder’s lawyers, Matthew Sims.

Three Boilermaker locals, one in Superior, one in Minnesota and one elsewhere in Wisconsin, represent the shipyard’s workers.

Photo: U.S. Department of Labor Blog



Press Associates Union News Service provides national coverage of news affecting workers, including activism, politics, economics, legislation in Congress and actions by the White House, federal agencies and the courts that affect working people. Mark Gruenberg is Editor in chief and owner of Press Associates Union News Service, Washington, D.C.