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Shipyard Safety Warnings Go Unheeded, Workers Claim

September 04, 1988|CHRIS WOODYARD | Times Staff Writer

LONG BEACH — Gary C. Woods watched helplessly as his gloved hand caught in the heavy rollers of a metal-bending machine at the Long Beach Naval Shipyard last year.

"The next thing I realized was I could hear my fingers cracking," said Woods, a welder who was helping out in a shipyard machine shop at the time. "I put it in reverse and pulled my hand out."

It was too late. Woods said the index and middle fingers on his right hand were crushed. The tip of the index finger was amputated hours after the accident.

Six years before, Dannie V. Rios was stamping out flanges on a shipyard punch press. The punch unexpectedly activated while Rios' right hand was underneath, severing two fingers and leaving a third dangling. He lost all three.

"I can't even describe the pain," Rios said. "The pain was just excruciating."

Hundreds of Accidents

While hundreds of industrial accidents have occurred in recent years at the 5,100-worker shipyard, the maimings of Woods and Rios are among the most serious. Both were injured on machines that allegedly lacked operator guards in violation of federal safety regulations.

Two past workers and one current employee charge that shipyard managers ignored numerous warnings that might have prevented those and other accidents.

For more than a year, the three men said, they warned yard safety officials about unguarded machines, electrical shock hazards and other unsafe practices. But they said their complaints were either sloughed off or treated as petty gripes motivated by their labor union affiliations.

Shipyard spokesman Gilbert Bond denied that managers turned a deaf ear to any complaints, even though the Naval inspector general slapped the yard with an unsatisfactory safety rating earlier this year upon finding that workers were exposed to more hazardous conditions than those at any of the nation's seven other government-owned yards.

Bond acknowledged that the yard has had safety problems, but insisted that the expansive facility on Terminal Island has never been an unsafe place to work. Bond said the yard has recently spent more than $500,000 installing guards on hundreds of industrial machines in a program that is 80% complete.

But safety records and shipyard memos obtained by The Times confirm that the concerns expressed by the three workers were echoed in critical reports from the inspector general and the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration.

Skeptical Reaction

The records also indicate that on several occasions shipyard managers reacted skeptically to their complaints.

"They (shipyard managers) were not doing annual inspections and nothing was getting fixed," said Jack Podojil, the yard's former training and audit program manager.

In making the safety complaints, Podojil joined Don Nelson, former business agent for the Asbestos Workers Union Local 20, and Joe Walsh, safety chairman for the shipyard's International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 2293.

Podojil said he became a steward for the International Federation of Technical Engineers only after being stymied in attempts to clean up shipyard safety problems. But the three workers insist that their only motivation was to make the yard safer.

Nelson, in fact, was thanked in a February, 1987, memorandum from then-shipyard commander, Navy Capt. George E. Fink, for "your concern regarding our working conditions." Yet when Nelson filed a complaint eight months later about an unsafe practice, the reply from the yard's safety office had a notably harsher tone.

Nelson complained that a ship's gangway, suspended from a crane, was being used as a work platform by several employees who had not taken the required safety precautions. In San Diego, six workers were killed and another six injured last year when they fell from a crane basket at National Steel & Shipbuilding Co.

The Long Beach shipyard's safety staff agreed that Nelson's complaint was legitimate and immediately ordered a halt to the dangerous practice. Instead of being thanked, however, Nelson was criticized by one inspector for formally complaining to the safety office rather than asking a dockside supervisor to handle the problem.

Safety Director Lynn Bettencourt scrawled on the official reply that "Nelson's efforts detract from our (office's) efforts and do appear to be for the sake of harassment."

When asked about the incident this week, Bond issued a statement acknowledging that "in itself, Mr. Nelson's submission of an employee hazard report was proper and correct." But by failing to immediately contact a supervisor, he said, Nelson prolonged a dangerous situation. Bond said that Bettencourt's comments "were written with some frustration."

Nelson quit his shipyard job in January to become an OSHA inspector.

Two Commended

Walsh and Podojil were also commended--and even given cash awards--in August, 1987, for compiling a safety training schedule. But both workers said they encountered harsh resistence when they tried to warn managers about unsafe practices.

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