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Shipbuilding Firm Fined $62,800 in Deaths of 6 Men

January 07, 1988|H.G. REZA | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — National Steel & Shipbuilding Co. was cited Wednesday by a federal safety agency for 19 violations stemming from a July 10 accident that killed six men and injured six others when a steel personnel basket that was being lowered by a crane plunged to a ship deck. Fines imposed totaled $62,800.

Officials of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration said that the agency has also launched a comprehensive safety inspection of the shipyard that could result in additional fines.

John Hermanson, director of the local federal OSHA office, said that the agency's investigation did not determine a direct cause of the accident. But he added that crane operator Hugh Humphrey, 65, "was not at fault."

Hermanson said that OSHA expressly prohibits the use of crane-lifted personnel baskets except for "extraordinary situations."

'Other Means Available'

"This was not an extraordinary situation. There were other means available to transport these workers safely," Hermanson said. He charged that the company's decision to use the personnel basket on the night of the accident was "a willful" violation of federal safety standards.

Specifically, Hermanson said the tragedy could have been averted if company officials had provided workers with a gangway between the Sacramento, a Navy supply ship that was being overhauled, and a berthing barge that was used to service the ship.

The fatal accident occurred minutes after midnight when a steel personnel basket that measured six feet by four feet and was carrying 12 men fell 30 feet to a deck on the Sacramento. The basket was being lowered by a crane operated by Humphrey.

Three weeks after the accident, Fred Hallett, company vice president and spokesman, blamed it on Humphrey, who has been on paid leave since the incident. Hallett said that an inspection of the electric crane revealed no mechanical problems and charged that the accident was caused by operator error.

No Mechanical Problems

On Wednesday, Hallett noted that the OSHA investigation found no mechanical problems with the crane, but he refused to repeat his earlier charge that Humphrey's negligence caused the accident.

"There have been a series of lawsuits filed since the accident. Given that the matter is now in the courts, it would be inappropriate for me to comment on the cause," Hallett said.

Hallett conceded that the shipyard should have installed a gangway between the two ships, but he added that until the accident happened the use of crane-lifted personnel baskets was a "routine procedure" in U.S. shipyards.

Humphrey could not be reached for comment, but his attorney, Peter Hughes, said he was "elated" for his client.

Since the accident, the company has drawn up new safety procedures that clearly define and limit the use of personnel baskets, Hallett said.

Ends 6-Month Inquiry

The report released Wednesday ended OSHA's six-month investigation of the accident. One citation that carried a $10,000 fine was issued because the company knowingly allowed Humphrey to operate the crane when company officials were aware that he is color blind.

"We considered it fairly serious. Some controls are color coded, including the emergency stop button for the crane. The crane operator is also directed from ground level by people wearing different colored hard hats. If you can't tell who's directing you to do something, you can't interpret what to do with the load," Hermanson said.

The firm has 15 working days to pay the fines or contest the citations with OSHA's review commission. Meanwhile, Hallett said the shipyard welcomes the comprehensive safety review by OSHA so the company can improve its safety programs.

The company is a subsidiary of Morrison-Knudsen, of Boise, Ida., and employs about 2,300 workers at its San Diego shipyard.

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