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WI Shipyard Settles First Lead Exposure Suit

Friday, May 11, 2018

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A Wisconsin shipyard has settled one of a number of lawsuits filed in the past two years by workers alleging they were exposed to lead hazards in violation of workplace-safety regulations.

Fraser Shipyards, in Superior, settled with welder James Holder, who filed the first suit against the shipyard in relation to work on the Herbert C. Jackson, a Great Lakes freighter that was refurbished at the facility in early 2016. Holder sued in May 2016, seeking damages of at least $75,000, after an investigation by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration confirmed the presence of lead on the ship.

The Incident

Holder used abrasive blasting tools and welding torches to blast, cut, chip, heat and weld painted surfaces aboard the vessel, which allegedly exposed him and other workers to toxic fumes and airborne particulates. 

Herbert C. Jackson
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Holder sued over lead exposure during the refurbishment of the Herbert C. Jackson.

Workers began notifying shipyard officials of unusual health conditions and ailments, the suit claims, but their complaints were reportedly ignored and not investigated, and workers, including Holder, were told “there was nothing to be concerned about.”

When Holder was tested for lead poisoning on April 1, 2016, he reportedly had a blood-lead level of 36.5 micrograms per deciliter, more than seven times the limit that is considered to be “elevated.” A blood-lead level of 36.5 is considered to be “critical” by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Levels above 50 require workers to immediately be removed from duty, according to OSHA regulations; they can return to work when they dip back below 40.

The average blood-lead level for American adults is 1.2 micrograms per decileter, according to the CDC.

Multiple Suits

Holder was working for a subcontractor, Tradesmen International, which was not named in his suit. Fraser Shipyards was joined by co-defendants Interlake Steamship Company (the owner of the ship), and Northern Engineering Company (which, like Fraser, is a subsidiary of Capstan Corporation).

Three other suits involving 43 more workers were filed after Holder’s suit and are still pending. Fraser officials have declined to comment on the settlement given the ongoing litigation.

The Herbert C. Jackson was launched in 1959 and converted to a self-unloader, and from coal to fuel oil power, in 1975.

OSHA Action

Fraser was fined $700,000 by OSHA in response to the exposure of workers on the Jackson to lead, other heavy metals and asbestos, only about half of OSHA’s original proposed fine.

In its citation, OSHA alleged that Fraser management knew of the presence of lead and asbestos in the Herbert C. Jackson, but were on a tight deadline to refurbish the ship before summer, and cut corners to stay on time and on budget.

By Herbert L. Fred, MD and Hendrik A. van Dijk / CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Lead overexposure, according to OSHA, is associated with brain damage, as well as gastrointestinal effects, anemia and kidney disease.

“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, then-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.

Wisconsin Public Radio reports that Fraser has been in compliance with its settlement with OSHA, which required the implementation of a new safety plan and regular OSHA inspections.

The shipyard faced another OSHA citation in 2017 in an unrelated incident in which a worker suffered fatal burns while performing hot work.


Tagged categories: Health and safety; Lawsuits; Lead; OSHA; Shipyards

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