The Puget Sound Naval Shipyard (PSNS) in Bremerton has lost its ability to participate in a prestigious U.S. Department of Labor safety program, whose members must "show excellence in occupational safety and health," after 12 years following the KING 5 investigation, "Seven Years of Cyanide."
The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) created the program, known as the Voluntary Protection Program (VPP), in 1982 to partner with worksite safety leaders to minimize injuries and illnesses. Being selected to participate is a source of pride for any industrial complex and comes with benefits, such as not having to undergo typical OSHA inspections.
Last week, the largest union at the shipyard formally withdrew its participation in VPP. A requirement of the program is that OSHA, shipyard management, and organized labor all take part. The withdrawal of the Bremerton Metal Trades Council, which represents 8,500 shipyard workers, gave PSNS no chance to continue with VPP.
Union leadership said they’ve been unhappy with management’s approach to the safety program for the last few years, but decided to take the drastic step after seeing the KING 5 investigator’s findings over the last six months of failed workplace safety procedures that left some employees sick. The problems centered on a wastewater treatment facility on the base. Internal shipyard records showed the facility was faulty and management turned a blind eye to warnings about dangers of working there.
“For many of the union affiliates and many of the employees, (the KING 5 investigation) was a gigantic tipping point. (It) heavily weighted the scales (of leaving VPP) one way. They said, we’re done,” said Council President Bruce Baillie.
In a May 24 letter to OSHA, the union stated “VPP is supposed to emphasize trust and cooperation among OSHA, management, the employees and the labor representatives. It is supposed to be a partnership working jointly for the benefit of all unit employees. (The shipyard) does not,” wrote Baillie.
“An even greater concern is the (wastewater plant)….employees were exposed to and harmed by cyanide and chlorine gas exposures from working in (the building)…(but) management seems to work to hide it culpability and refuse (sic) to take responsibility," Baillie continued.
In response to the union’s letter, the PSNS voluntarily withdrew from the program but defended its safety record.
“We believe PSNS & IMF (Intermediate Maintenance Facility) meets or exceeds OSHA's requirements to be a VPP Star site and we will continue to ensure that the safety of our workforce remains at the forefront of our priorities,” wrote J.C. Mathews, Deputy Public Affairs Officer.
Union leadership said of particular concern were revelations in the KING 5 series of reports that shipyard management was not honest with OSHA investigators who came to look into the plant’s alleged problems in 2013.
Test results from April 2013 showed toxic chlorine gas measured so high employees had to evacuate the building five times in five days. Navy testers also found chlorine levels nine times higher than what can kill you.
Top shipyard officials told OSHA inspectors that those test results were a fluke. They wrote they were “confident” employees had not been “exposed to unsafe chlorine gas levels.”
But other internal documents proved otherwise. A shipyard document from February 2012 showed the plant was evacuated after a worker “had his breath taken away”….and firefighters found “high airborne chlorine levels.”
In November 2012, records showed six people were “exposed to chlorine gas” above legal limits…with severe symptoms such as “shortness of breath and dizziness,” …“burning in the eyes and throat” and “coughing up fluid from lungs” that lasted for “3 days.”
The shipyard did not share these records with OSHA.
“Based on what I saw on your investigation I think certain members of management were less than honest with OSHA when they were investigating things….That violates every thought you could think of for VPP,” said Baillie.
Another top union official said not providing or concealing records from OSHA could be grounds for prosecution.
“In my opinion it violates Title 18 United States Code Section 1, where if one is less than honest on government documents it involves fines and imprisonment,” said Ed Mannen, Council Vice President.
Prior to the union letter, OSHA sent a letter to the shipyard on May 11, putting the shipyard on notice that the agency was planning on terminating VPP participation, citing violations unrelated to the wastewater treatment plant found during an inspection conducted on January 24, 2018.
In addition to the withdrawal from the VPP program, the shipyard has also lost the program’s most coveted award – the Star Site Award. The PSNS had been a recipient of the highest safety award given by VPP since 2006. In the May 11 letter, OSHA instructed the shipyard to “not display the VPP flag, (Star Site) plaque, and/or certificate.”
In 2013 the shipyard shut the treatment plant down and invested $2 million in safety improvements. Workers there now believe it is a safe facility. That’s little consolation for former workers who are now sick with illnesses such as respiratory and gastrointestinal problems.