For the second time in seven months, the Warner Robins Air Logistics Center in Georgia faces numerous federal health and safety citations regarding its painting and sanding facilities, and more citations are expected soon.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration notified the center this week of the second wave of violations—27 in all—regarding several buildings used for sanding, priming, scuffing and painting aircraft. Hundreds of employees work in those buildings, employees said this week.
The violations, detailed in a 48-page OSHA report, alleged include:
• Improperly constructed and secured scaffolding;
• Numerous instances of inaccurate or missing reports of employee illnesses and injuries, including a broken elbow; amputation of a fingertip; torn rotator cuffs requiring surgery; a broken arm described as a leg wound; and a concussion and rib fracture reported as a scalp contusion;
• Fall hazards;
• Forcing employees to store clean clothes and personal items in dirty locker rooms because there are not enough lockers;
• Lack of changing rooms;
• Lack of first-aid supplies near dipping or coating operations;
• Widespread confined space deficiencies, including lack of training; and
• Exposures throughout the building—including on the table, soda machine and refrigerator in the break room—to cadmium, beryllium, lead and Chromium 6. Some of the exposures were more than 100 times the Permissible Exposure Limit, and employees were not aware of exposure standards, hazards, or practices, OSHA said.
‘We Will Take Care of Our People’
The Center command said it expected official notification of approximately 23 more citations in early February.
"We will promptly address each finding," said Maj. Gen. Robert H. McMahon, WR-ALC commander. He said all Center personnel would go above and beyond "mere compliance" with OSHA requirements.
McMahon said that one of his 2011 goals for the Center was to reduce the number of injuries 25%, which would require many personnel "to think differently" about how they do business, according to a press release posted on the base’s web site.
"We will take care of our people," he said.
The violations were discovered during OSHA Federal Agency Targeting Inspection Program inspections in the second half of 2010. FEDTARG inspections take a comprehensive look at federal agency worksites that experience a certain number of ”lost time” cases-—employees who lose time from work due to injuries.
Those inspections followed others by OSHA in late 2009 and early 2010. The earlier inspections were centered on the 402nd Maintenance Wing's composite flight, which is responsible for overhauling various bonded structures on F-15, C-130 and C-17 aircraft, and resulted in the center receiving 13 citations in May.
The overwhelming majority of current and former violations are classified as Serious, meaning that there is substantial probability that death or serious physical harm could result from a hazard about which the employer knew or should have known.
The center contested the citations from last May, resulting in a settlement agreement on Nov. 16 that deleted one citation and reduced another from Willful to Serious. WR-ALC agreed to submit final certification of all completed abatements within 30 days of that agreement. That case remains open, however.
Mitigation Actions Addressed
In a press conference Wednesday to discuss the citations, McMahon said he believed that base personnel “have corrected or have mitigation plans in place to take care” of the citations from May 2010.
Regarding the new citations, he said: “In some cases, the mitigation actions are already in place, and in other cases we have work to do. Our workforce needs to know that when they come through the gates, they will have a safe and secure environment. It’s my job to ensure they have that.”
He called the base personnel “patriots” and said they cared about working conditions.
“But did we do all we could?” he added. “Obviously not, or we wouldn’t be having this conversation. So we’re going back and look at what we’ve been doing and see how we can do better.”
The general said there was no indication of unexpected health problems among the personnel.
“Much of what we saw in the original citations had to do with the subjective words of ‘as clean as practical,’” he said. “The reality is that what we saw and what OSHA saw were two different standards. That’s part of what we have learned from all of this. We have to go back and make sure we are to their standards.”
He added: “If our work areas are not safe, we will shut down the operation and move it someplace else,” McMahon noted. “I don’t want to divest myself of workload. But that’s ultimately what I will have to do if I can’t make the work area safe enough. I want to keep it here. But if all else fails, that’s the solution I’ve got to look to.”
Union Denounces Conditions
The base workers are represented by the American Federation of Government Employees 987. In an interview this week with PaintSquare News, two union reps expressed frustration and anger at the continuing deficiencies in working conditions.
“People were bringing these concerns forward three or four years ago,” said Bobby Tidwell, AFGE base safety rep, a sheet-metal mechanic and adjunct professor at a nearby college. “They were told by management to shut up. “
Employees and their families have suffered a variety of ailments, from asthma, to dermatitis, to cancer, said Tidwell and Ron Hill, a union rep who has worked at the center since 2001.
Employees perform sanding, scuffing and other tasks in three-walled finishing booths, removing up to nine layers of aircraft coatings without protection or containment, they said. The dust is tracked from building to building and to workers’ homes, Hill and Tidwell said.
“If the sanding booths weren’t there, you couldn’t see from one end of the building to the other” because of the dust, said Hill. “The building is like a big warehouse. The booths weren’t installed until 2004, and they aren’t made for the purpose they’re being used for.”
‘One Guy’s Fingernails Were Falling Off’
“People have been diagnosed with asthma,” said Tidwell. “People have been diagnosed with cancer. Two people had to have a kidney removed. People’s hands have occupational dermatitis. They have white spots. The pigment eats away at their hands.”
Management “called it nuisance stuff,” said Tidwell. “They said, ‘You have dust in your house.’ But I said, ‘Yeah, but I don’t sand airplane parts in my living room.’”
“One guy didn’t even know he was working with Beryllium. You’re supposed to have a physical. Our physical consists of a hearing test. We’re not even being monitored.
“One guy’s fingernails were falling off, and he was only in that building six months. I’ve been here nine years and I’ve never even received a [health or safety] pamphlet.
“We’ve had a lot of people in that area died from cancer, and they want to say they’re just statistics.”
Record Keeping Cited
The OSHA report includes employee injury and illnesses being misreported, not reported or reported late. The examples included:
• One painter broke his elbow and cut his elbow and both legs. He was off the job 96 days. The employer recorded 14 days away.
• One tool maker tore his rotator cuff, requiring surgery, 61 days off and 58 days of restriction or transfer. The employer misclassified the case as a “remained at work, job transfer or restriction” case.
• One plastic fabricator was diagnosed with occupational asthma and was transferred for more than 120 days. The case was recorded as a seven-day transfer.
• One employee suffered a broken bone that was logged as a “sprain and strain.” His 59 days of restriction were recorded as 30 days.
• A painter who broke his arm was reported as having suffered a cut.
• Employers waited two weeks to report an injury to a painter that required amputation of his fingertip.
Confined Space Citations
The report cited widespread deficiencies in permit-required confined-space practices and training. These included lack of adequate PPE, lack of certification of hazard removal prior to entry, lack of current procedures, and lack of adequate communications.
“The base’s entire [emphasis in original] confined space program shall be evaluated to determine if all of the above procedures are adequate and addressed and employees are trained adequately by qualified trainers,” OSHA said. “Those conducting training should conduct ‘spot checks’ throughout the base to address any questions or concerns addressed by employees.”
Despite widespread painting operations, the employer used no engineering or work practice controls to reduce employee exposures to Chromium 6. Some samples were found to contain 36 times the PEL, OSHA said.
Clean and dirty clothes are stored together, and employees must travel through the break room in dirty clothing after painting and scuff sanding and related activities to gain access to the showers and changing area.
Change rooms are not immediately available to employees who do corrosion control tasks such as sanding, priming and painting, OSHA reported .