LONG BEACH — Even though federal inspectors have roundly criticized safety standards at the Long Beach Naval Shipyard, a spokesman for private shipbuilders accused the government last week of not being tough enough on Navy facilities.
"It's kind of like the fox watching the henhouse," said John J. Stocker, president of the Shipbuilders Council of America. "That's our suspicion. I would like to be proven wrong."
Stocker said he believes that federal inspectors are guilty of having a double standard because they don't give government-owned shipyards the same thorough safety review that private yards receive.
Stocker said he intends to write federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration officials to find out why the Long Beach facility has not been subjected to a "wall-to-wall" safety inspection in at least three years.
Private shipyards can be fined thousands of dollars for OSHA violations, but Navy shipyards are exempt from financial penalties.
OSHA Regional Administrator Frank Strasheim, however, disputed Stocker's suspicion that his agency has balked at conducting wall-to-wall inspections of government-owned yards compared to private yards.
'Naval Shipyards Are Safer'
"There is a hell of a difference," Strasheim said. "My general experience is that Naval shipyards are safer than their private counterparts (although) it's hard to apply that universally."
Stocker said in a telephone interview from Washington that his interest was spurred by disclosures in The Times that neither OSHA nor the Navy inspector general have conducted complete inspections at the Long Beach yard in recent years.
After conducting a limited examination of the sprawling yard last year, OSHA inspectors found that more than 250 industrial machines in one building alone lacked required operator-protection guards. And the inspector general slapped an unsatisfactory safety rating on the entire shipyard after another limited review in January.
Long Beach, the first among the Navy yards to receive the unsatisfactory rating since 1980, was riddled with safety violations, ranging from painters who were not being monitored for lead exposure to widespread disregard for eyesight and hearing protection, according to the inspector general's March report, which was obtained by The Times under the Freedom of Information Act.
Safety Record Defended
On Tuesday, a shipyard union official defended the naval facility's safety record.
Frank Griffin, acting president of the yard's Metal Trades Council, said many of the safety violations found by the inspector general have since been corrected. He said the shipyard commander, Navy Capt. Larry D. Johnson, is working with the labor unions to make the yard safer.
Shipyard spokesman Gilbert Bond said guards have been installed on all industrial machines that needed them.
Shipyard managers have teamed with union leaders in recent months to counter a move by the Shipbuilder's Council to have the Long Beach yard put in mothballs. Private shipbuilders contend that the yard is inefficient and robs them of work that they could do better and cheaper.
Represents Private Yards
Stocker, whose lobbying organization represents 25 private shipyards with 95% of the employees in the industry, said OSHA has not balked at complete reviews of private yards.
For instance, a wall-to-wall inspection of National Steel & Shipbuilding Co. in San Diego last January resulted in the discovery of 451 violations and in proposed fines totaling $73,300.
But Strasheim, who is based in San Francisco, pointed out that several workers have been killed at NASSCO in recent years, including six last year when they fell from a basket suspended from a crane. At the Long Beach yard, only a single death has been recorded in the last three years.
He said all federal agencies are under executive order to comply with safety and health regulations. If an agency is slow to correct safety shortcomings, more pressure can brought to bear on them through OSHA's chain of command.
Lack of Personnel
Dr. Leslie W. Michael, OSHA area director in Long Beach, said that only a lack of personnel has prevented wall-to-wall inspections of the naval shipyard in the past three years.
However, the yard's Metal Trades Council president, Frank Rodriguez, who is recuperating at home from illness, said he and other union representatives voiced concern about safety at the yard in a 1986 meeting with Michael.
He said Michael told them, "We're all part of the federal family," a remark he interpreted to mean that OSHA would "overlook some stuff." Rodriguez said he was disappointed at the time that OSHA would not conduct a full inspection of the yard.
Michael said last week that his inspection force is now larger and the shipyard is targeted for another inspection next year. He said he is not allowed to disclose the expected scope of the inspection.