This is about how to send the right message to a company that is alleged to have willfully endangered the health of workers.
The company is Fraser Shipyard of Superior, Wisconsin. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has accused Fraser of exposing 190 welders and ship fabricators to toxic levels of some nasty chemicals, including lead, asbestos, arsenic and hexavalent chromium. 75% of the workers tested had elevated levels of lead in their systems, including 14 who had lead levels up to 20 times the maximum allowable exposure. 1
It’s OSHA’s job to take this seriously. Because, as we have known for a long time, lead is a toxic chemical, and the health consequences of exposure to lead are quite serious.
The National Institutes of Health say “No amount of lead is safe. Eliminating all lead exposure in our environment is our best course of action.” Lead exposure has been linked to a number of serious health issues in adults. As a general rule, the more lead you have in your body, the more likely it is you’ll have health problems. 2
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry lists the following health risks for adults exposed to lead:
- nerve disorders
- cardiovascular effects
- decreased kidney function
- memory or concentration problems
- brain damage and lower IQ
- fertility problems
- increased blood pressure and hypertension
- gastrointestinal problems
- increased incidences of essential tremors 3
So this was OSHA’s reaction:
- Shut Fraser down, at least for a while.
- Proposed a fine of almost $1.4 million.
- Accused Fraser of committing 14 “willful” safety violations of exposing a worker to lead
- Accused Fraser of 5 violations for lack of a lead monitoring program, and failure to implement monitoring and other programs to protect workers against exposure to toxins
- Issued 10 other serious violations
- Put Fraser into its “Severe Violators Enforcement Program”—for the worst offenders.1
Fraser has a checkered past, where worker safety is concerned. OSHA previously cited Fraser in 2000 for exposing workers to asbestos, and for as many as 60 lead violations in 1993. It has inspected Fraser some 28 times since 1972, concerned about the possibility of similar failures to protect workers from environmental contamination. 4
Willful safety violations are rare; OSHA issues them only when it believes that an “employer either knowingly failed to comply with a legal requirement or acted with plain indifference to employee safety.” 5
Understand that, for as serious as this OSHA action is, at this point, these are allegations. Fraser will have the chance to prove its conduct is not as bad as alleged, if it wishes to try.
But what if these allegations are proven? Or Fraser admits them? Is a fine—even a very large one—enough? What will it take to get Fraser’s attention? What if Fraser’s behavior really is as bad as OSHA has claimed?
Then there is a serious problem with the culture at Fraser. If proven, charges so serious and comprehensive as these—especially within a company that has a track record of failure where worker safety is concerned—would tell us that the people in charge at Fraser should not be running this company. Because it is the people in charge at a company that establish its culture. And so at a very basic level, the people running Fraser would be shown to obviously not give a damn for the safety of human beings.
The health of nearly 200 workers has been threatened; some could suffer life-long consequences from exposure to dangerous chemicals at Fraser. In my opinion, that demands a penalty more likely than a fine—even a large fine—to shock Fraser into the recognition that life and health is to be respected.
That means that the people who run Fraser should have to pay a personal price. Specifically: whichever Fraser executives are responsible for worker safety should not be allowed to work at Fraser anymore. And criminal charges against them should be seriously considered. If you or I so much as run a red light in our car, we can be charged with a crime, including the reckless endangerment of our passengers and others on the road. So should it likewise be worthy of a criminal charge if, as OSHA has claimed, Fraser has “willfully” and repeatedly threatened the health of nearly 200 workers by exposing them to toxic chemicals?
If not, then we have regressed back to the 19th century on worker safety.