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Shipyard cited for allowing repeated exposures to lead, asbestos

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A Wisconsin shipyard company is facing $1.4 million in proposed fines and has been deemed a severe violator of workplace safety and health regulations, federal safety regulators said Monday.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited Superior, Wisconsin-based Fraser Shipyards Inc. for 14 willful egregious health violations for each instance of overexposing a worker to lead after sampling results determined 14 workers had lead levels up to 20 times the exposure limit and workers were exposed to other heavy metals, the agency said in a statement.

OSHA also issued five additional willful citations for failing to conduct monitoring to assess employee exposure to lead, failing to implement a lead compliance program or a respiratory protection program for lead and for failing to provide training on lead and asbestos hazards, as well as 10 serious violations, according to the statement.

OSHA placed the company in its Severe Violator Enforcement Program, which focuses resources on inspecting employers that, according to the agency, have demonstrated indifference to their Occupational Safety and Health Act obligations through willful, repeated or failure-to-abate violations. OSHA previously cited the shipyards, whose workers comp carrier is Arch Insurance Co. in Jersey City, New Jersey, for exposing workers to asbestos hazards in 2000 and for multiple lead violations in 1993, according to the agency.

Fraser failed to identify and inform employees of the presence, location and quantity of asbestos containing materials or presumed asbestos-containing material despite having a written asbestos compliance program, according to the agency.

Employees also performed demolition in several areas of a ship — including cutting into piping and equipment — unaware of the presence of asbestos in areas where these activities took place.

The agency determined Fraser Shipyards' management knew of the presence of lead and asbestos throughout the vessel, which was built in 1959 and arrived at the shipyards in December 2015 for a six-month retrofit project. The contract required the company to meet specific deadlines to get the vessel back in service for the summer iron ore shipping season, according to OSHA.

“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,” David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for Occupational Safety and Health, said in a statement. “This employer was unwilling to pay the necessary costs to protect employees from lead exposure. 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.”

Fraser halted work as soon as it was alerted to high lead levels and other concerns on the project and engaged medical experts from two leading hospitals in the region and industrial safety experts from the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers union to advise the company and workers and to oversee health testing of workers, according to an emailed statement.

The company also said it purchased state-of-the-art safety gear and equipment to protect workers, including protective suits, breathing equipment, air scrubbers, decontamination and changing trailers and cleaning supplies.

Fraser also engaged medical professionals, OHSA and union officials representing workers to develop and implement extensive new safety procedures, including protections for how employees, laborers and contractors prepare for work, conduct work and clean up after work, the company said.

“We take the health and safety of our people and our community seriously,” James Farkas, president and chief operating officer of Fraser Industries, which oversees Fraser Shipyards, said in the statement. “We acted to protect our people as soon as we learned of the problems. We have worked with all of our employees, laborers and contractors to ensure their health by bringing in medical experts as well as the highest levels of testing, protective equipment and safe operating procedures. We strongly disagree with OSHA's statement that any of the issues were caused or worsened by business or profit motivations.”

Fraser has requested a settlement conference with the agency, according to a spokesman.

The insurer could not be immediately reached for comment.