National Steel & Shipbuilding Co. officials said Thursday that they intend to contest several citations and fines levied by a federal safety agency that charged the company with "willful" violations in a July 10 accident that left six workers dead and six others injured.
Nassco officials added that the company will not comply voluntarily with a "wall-to-wall" safety inspection proposed by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The citations and $62,800 in fines were announced Wednesday in an OSHA report of the accident after a six-month investigation.
The company's intentions were announced in a leaflet signed by R.H. Vortmann, Nassco president, that was distributed to workers at the end of Thursday's day shift. Nassco has 15 working days, from the date the citations and fines were issued, to challenge the findings before an OSHA review board.
However, it was the critical comments attributed to local OSHA Director John Hermanson, who charged that Nassco willfully violated federal safety standards by using a steel personnel basket to transport the 12 workers, that raised the ire of shipyard officials.
The tragedy occurred about midnight when the 4-by-6-foot basket, which was being moved by an electric crane, fell 30 feet to a deck of a Navy supply ship that was being overhauled. The crane was operated by Hugh Humphrey, who was cleared by the OSHA investigation of any culpability in the accident.
Hermanson told the press Wednesday that OSHA prohibits the use of crane-lifted personnel baskets in shipyards. But Hermanson added that the prohibition against the use of personnel baskets is not absolute and shipyards are allowed to use such baskets to transport workers in "extraordinary" circumstances.
An extraordinary situation that would have necessitated the use of a personnel basket did not exist on the night of the accident, Hermanson said.
But the issue was further confused when Hermanson advised Nassco in a letter that accompanied the citations that there are no OSHA standards governing the use of personnel baskets in shipyards. Instead, Hermanson advised the company that when baskets are used as a last resort, the shipyard should voluntarily comply with standards established by the private American National Standard Institute.
OSHA investigators found several safety problems with the basket involved in the accident, but in the letter Hermanson said that "since no OSHA standard applies . . . no citation will be issued at this time."
Nassco executives jumped on the information contained in the letter to charge that the citations and fines were "inappropriate and unwarranted. . . . We intend to protest them vigorously," Vortmann said in the leaflet.
"How can we violate a standard that doesn't exist?" said Fred Hallett, Nassco vice president and spokesman. "We've done a preliminary review of the OSHA citations and our position is that most, if not all, are inappropriate and unwarranted."
Hallett declined to specify which of the citations will be contested. OSHA served the company with 19 citations, many of them minor ones that carried no fine.
On Wednesday, Hallett said that the use of personnel baskets has been a routine and common practice in U.S. shipyards. However, OSHA investigators charged, and Hallett agreed, that the accident could have been prevented if the company had installed gangways between the Navy ship and a berthing barge that was servicing the vessel. OSHA safety standards require their use, and Nassco was fined $10,000 by the agency for not providing gangways between the two ships.
The gangways could have been used by the workers to reach the pier safely, said Hermanson, making it unnecessary to use the personnel basket.
When the citations and fines were announced Wednesday, OSHA said it would immediately begin a complete safety inspection of the shipyard. OSHA assembled a nine-person inspection team from across the country that descended on the shipyard Wednesday after the citations were served.
According to Hallett, Nassco officials agreed to the inspection if the OSHA team would approve a set of "ground rules," including a demand that a Nassco representative accompany the inspectors.
Hallett said that the inspection team refused, saying that they did not have the authority to agree to the ground rules. A stalemate quickly developed and Nassco said it would comply with the inspection only if OSHA obtained a court order.
"We will fall back to a body of law that formalizes and defines the rights and duties of both parties," Hallett said. "We are now in the process of going through that formalized procedure and OSHA will now have to return with the appropriate legal documents authorizing their entry into the shipyard."
Hermanson and other OSHA officials did not return calls for comments on the new developments.
Hallett said that OSHA had agreed to similar ground rules during the agency's investigation of the crane accident. He said that Nassco insisted on these provisions for the new safety inspection because the new OSHA team "is not familiar with the shipyard."
"It's unfortunate that it had to result in this. We still intend to cooperate, but in a more formal manner now. As we understand the law, we have the right to have a company representative accompany them as they conduct their inspection," Hallett said.