The U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration has fined VT Halter Marine Inc., a shipbuilder, for $1,322,000 following a November 2009 explosion and fire that killed two workers and seriously injured two other workers. The incident occurred in the inner bottom void of a tugboat that was being constructed at the company's Escatawpa, Miss., facility.
"This was a horrific and preventable situation. The employer was aware of the hazards and knowingly and willfully sent workers into a confined space with an explosive and toxic atmosphere," said Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis. "Loss of life can never be something considered acceptable or as a course of doing business."
Following its investigation, OSHA has cited the company for 17 willful and 11 serious violations. The willful citations are for failing to inspect and test the confined space prior to entry, to prevent entry into confined spaces where concentration of flammable vapors exceed the prescribed limits and to use explosion proof lighting in a hazardous location. A willful violation is one committed with intentional, knowing or voluntary disregard for the law's requirements, or with plain indifference to employee safety and health.
The serious violations include a lack of machine guarding, allowing the use of defective electrical equipment, failing to use approved containers for disposing flammable liquids, the lack of a rescue service available for a confined space entry, failing to properly ventilate a confined space, and missing or incomplete guardrails. A serious citation is issued when there is substantial probability that death or serious physical harm could result from a hazard about which the employer knew or should have known.
Eight other-than-serious violations also have been issued. These concern recordkeeping, failing to provide lavatory facilities with tepid running water, failing to ensure workplace floors were free from water accumulation and electrical grounding hazards.
"VT Halter knowingly and willfully failed to protect the lives of its workers in a confined space even though it had the knowledge and equipment necessary to do so," said Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA Dr. David Michaels. "We will not tolerate this type of blatant and egregious disregard for the health and safety of workers. Employers need to know there will be consequences."
The company has 15 business days from receipt of the citations and penalties to comply, request an informal conference with OSHA's area director or contest the findings before the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.