OSHA Cites Shipbuilder $1.3 million for Confined Space Violations Following Fatalities

OSHA has fined shipbuilder VT Halter Marine Inc. (VTHM) $1,322,000 following a November 2009 explosion and fire that killed two workers and seriously injured two others. While OSHA contends that the employer “knowingly and willingly” put workers at risk, VTHM claims the safety issues have been addressed and hopes to partner with OSHA to improve safety within the industry.

The fatal incident occurred in the inner bottom void of a tugboat that was being constructed at the company’s Escatawpa, Miss., facility on Nov. 20, 2009.

“This was a horrific and preventable situation. The employer was aware of the hazards and knowingly and willfully sent workers into a confined space with an explosive and toxic atmosphere,” said Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis. “Loss of life can never be something considered acceptable or as a course of doing business.”

Following its investigation, OSHA cited the company for 17 willful and 11 serious violations. The willful citations are for failing to inspect and test the confined space prior to entry, to prevent entry into confined spaces where concentration of flammable vapors exceed the prescribed limits and to use explosion proof lighting in a hazardous location. A willful violation is one committed with intentional, knowing or voluntary disregard for the law’s requirements, or with plain indifference to employee safety and health.

The serious violations include a lack of machine guarding, allowing the use of defective electrical equipment, failing to use approved containers for disposing flammable liquids, the lack of a rescue service available for a confined space entry, failing to properly ventilate a confined space, and missing or incomplete guardrails. A serious citation is issued when there is substantial probability that death or serious physical harm could result from a hazard about which the employer knew or should have known.

Eight other-than-serious violations also have been issued. These concern recordkeeping, failing to provide lavatory facilities with tepid running water, failing to ensure workplace floors were free from water accumulation and electrical grounding hazards.

“VT Halter knowingly and willfully failed to protect the lives of its workers in a confined space even though it had the knowledge and equipment necessary to do so,” said Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA Dr. David Michaels. “We will not tolerate this type of blatant and egregious disregard for the health and safety of workers. Employers need to know there will be consequences.”

Skinner: Safety is a Core Value

“We deeply regret this tragic accident,” said VTHM CEO Bill Skinner in a statement sent to EHS Today. “The safety of our people is the core value our entire company is built upon.”

Skinner added that while the company had never before had a fatal accident, “even one accident is too many. That’s why we are doing everything in our power to set the standard for safety in our industry.”

According to VTHM, company representatives fully cooperated with OSHA during the onsite safety investigation at the facility following the accident and gave the agency full access to employees for questions and interviews. Most concerns, according to the company, were corrected immediately, and all others have since been addressed.

“Our cooperation with OSHA during their investigation and the speed at which we addressed their concerns demonstrates our commitment to providing a safe and healthy work site for the people who work here,” Skinner explained.

The company also announced it has hired a top maritime industry consultant to review and, where necessary, update safety policies, procedures and training.

“We would hope to have the opportunity to partner with OSHA to develop best practices for not only safer paint preparation procedures but also other safety and health areas within our industry,” Skinner said.

The company has 15 business days from receipt of the citations and penalties to comply, request an informal conference with OSHA’s area director or contest the findings before the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.

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