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WI Shipyard Faces More Lead-Exposure Suits

Friday, August 18, 2017

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The fallout from the 2016 lead exposure incident at a Wisconsin shipyard continues, as new lawsuits were filed Wednesday (Aug. 16) on behalf of 43 workers.

Fraser Shipyards, in Superior, was the site of the refurbishment job performed last year on the Herbert C. Jackson, a Great Lakes freighter. Work was halted on the job in March 2016 when testing performed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration revealed the presence of lead paint on the ship; numerous workers on the job subsequently tested positive for high blood lead levels.

Herbert C. Jackson
p.Gordon, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Fraser Shipyards faces three new lawsuits related to exposure to lead and other toxins during the refurbishment of the Herbert C. Jackson, a Great Lakes freighter, in 2016.

In August 2016, OSHA proposed fines of $1.4 million over the exposure to lead, asbestos and other toxins, but Fraser’s final fines in the incident were eventually reduced to $700,000

The first worker to sue Fraser was James Holder, who filed a complaint in May 2016 in the United States District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin. As of Wednesday, there are now three more suits, all filed in the same federal court.

Safety Efforts ‘Quashed’

The new suits name Fraser, its parent company Capstan Corporation, Capstan subsidiary Northern Engineering and ship owner Interlake Steamship Company as defendants. The plaintiffs include workers who performed tasks on and around the ship’s engines, ballast tanks and elsewhere, involving welding, abrasive blasting and other tasks.

The plaintiffs allege that the defendants “knew that, without a doubt, workers were going to be exposed to toxins,” but “none of the workers were ever told they were going to be exposed to toxins.” According to the complaints, this was “not the first instance of misconduct” in relation to the Herbert C. Jackson job, and it “involved profits taking precedence over safety.”

The suits argue that the opportunity for a job the size of the Herbert C. Jackson “caused much excitement” at Capstan and its subsidiaries, and while initial draft bids for the job included lead and toxin abatement, the company decided to “line-out” the abatement work because it represented too great a cost.

Herbert C. Jackson
jodelli, CC BY-SA, via Wikimedia Commons

The Herbert C. Jackson was built in 1959, and the new suits note that many of its surfaces were coated with lead paint, which the plaintiffs allege the shipyard knew but did not work to abate.

Further, the suits say, some Capstan safety personnel made efforts to bring about proper abatement efforts to keep the job safe for workers, but “these efforts were ultimately quashed by Capstan Corporation business managers” because of the added cost and potential delays they would have brought about.

The suits also detail an incident that allegedly took place in late 2015, when the new diesel engines for the Herbert C. Jackson were first delivered, in which the company attempted to lift engines with light-duty cranes because the proper cranes represented too great a cost. According to the plaintiffs, the crane failed, sending an engine falling to the ground in what the suits deem a “near-miss” event with no injuries.

Fraser declined to comment to local media on the new suits, and did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday (Aug. 17).

Blood Testing Reveals Lead Poisoning

The re-powering of the Herbert C. Jackson, a 690-foot Great Lakes freighter, was a $10 million project that began in earnest in January 2016. Many of the surfaces of the ship, built in 1959, were coated with lead-based paint, the new suits say.

The work on the refurbishment job, according to the suits, involved the installation of diesel engines to replace the ship’s old steam engine, a new gearbox and propeller system, exhaust gas economizers, an auxiliary boiler and new structural steel components.

After the OSHA testing that uncovered lead paint in March of that year, Fraser offered blood testing to workers on the job.

According to local news reports at the time, some employees said their blood lead levels tested at 42 to 46 micrograms/dL, considered by the Centers for Disease Control to be “elevated” levels, but under the 50 micrograms/dL level at which OSHA requires workers to be removed from a lead-exposure situation.

After elevated lead levels were found in a small sample of employees, further testing found that more than 75 percent of 120 employees who were tested had elevated blood lead levels. According to OSHA, some workers were exposed to lead at up to 20 times permissible levels.

The citations issued by OSHA made similar allegations to the new suits in terms of tight deadlines and concerns about profit resulting in safety lapses.

“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,” said David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for Occupational Safety and Health.

Lead overexposure, according to OSHA, is associated with brain damage, as well as gastrointestinal effects, anemia and kidney disease. Asbestos exposure can lead to mesothelioma and lung cancer.


Tagged categories: Health & Safety; Health and safety; Lawsuits; Lead; NA; North America; Ships and vessels; Shipyards

Comment from M. Halliwell, (8/18/2017, 11:01 AM)

Uh, guys....the last line can probably be removed. This article is about lead exposure and the only mention of asbestos is in the last line.

Comment from Andy Mulkerin, (8/18/2017, 11:10 AM)

Hi Michael! Sorry for the lack of clarity -- asbestos has also been a concern on this job, and was called out in the OSHA citation, along with arsenic and other heavy metals; they just all ended up classed as "other toxins" in the new suits and, as a result, in this article (until the last line). I've added a note up further to clarify that asbestos was a concern as well; lead is simply the primary concern. Thanks for the nudge!

Comment from Thomas Van Hooser, (8/18/2017, 1:33 PM)

This industry has a safety cultural problem - big time!.

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