Federal safety regulators slapped a Superior, Wis., shipyard with 29 violations — mainly for “willful” safety breaches — after finding that 14 workers retrofitting a Great Lakes freighter were overexposed to lead.
The large number of violations levied against Fraser Shipyards was accompanied with a proposed fine of $1.4 million, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced Monday. It said some Fraser workers had lead levels up to 20 times the exposure limit.
OSHA cited one “willful egregious” violation for each of the 14 instances of worker overexposure to lead.
In addition, it issued five willful violations to Fraser Shipyards for failing to assess employee exposure to lead, implement a lead compliance program, and provide training on lead and asbestos hazards.
Willful safety violations are rare. OSHA issues them only when it believes an employer knowingly failed to comply with safety regulations or acted with “plain indifference to employee safety,” according to OSHA’s website.
Fraser also was cited for 10 “serious” safety violations.
The violations stem from a $10 million contract to modernize the Herbert C. Jackson, a 1959-vintage bulk carrier owned by Ohio-based Interlake Steamship Co. The Jackson is the fifth and last ship owned by Interlake to be converted from steam power to diesel.
The Jackson’s retrofitting last winter was one of the biggest projects in years at Fraser, a 126-year-old shipyard essentially owned since 1977 by the current owners, though under different corporate names.
“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, OSHA’s assistant secretary of labor, said in a press statement. “The employer was unwilling to pay the necessary costs to protect employees from lead exposure.”
In a statement, Fraser Shipyards’ President James Farkas said, “We strongly disagree with OSHA’s statement that any of the issues were caused or worsened by business or profit motivations.”
Fraser acted to protect workers as soon as it learned of the issues, Farkas said, including halting work due to high lead levels and engaging medical experts from Duluth-Superior’s two leading hospitals for advice and oversight of worker health testing.
Fraser Shipyards, near the Blatnik Bridge connecting Duluth and Superior, does maintenance and construction work on Great Lakes vessels. The Jackson arrived at Fraser in December for a six-month retrofit. OSHA said it opened an inspection in February after receiving multiple complaints of unsafe working conditions.
OSHA did testing and sampling, concluding that 14 workers were overexposed to lead. Overexposure to lead can cause brain damage, kidney disease and other problems.
Fraser later tested more than 120 additional employees, 75 percent of whom had elevated levels of lead in their blood, according to OSHA.
OSHA said it placed Fraser in its “Severe Violator Enforcement Program,” which means that the shipyard will get more scrutiny.
OSHA cited Fraser for exposing workers to asbestos hazards in 2000 and for multiple lead violations in 1993.