FEDERAL HEALTH, SAFETY INVESTIGATION 

'High number' of violations found at PSNS 

March 3, 2002

By Chris Barron
Sun Staff 

OSHA revealed some unsafe employee conditions directly related to exposure of two toxic metals.

A federal investigation has found 11 serious health violations at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, government documents show.

The U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration found unsanitary or unsafe conditions stemming from toxic metals cadmium and lead in lunch rooms, water fountains and in highly industrial areas, particularly where ship recycling occurs.

The investigation also found three additional violations at PSNS a serious safety violation, a repeat health violation and a minor violation.

"I consider this to be a high number of violations," said OSHA Area Director Joy Flack, who performed the investigation. "We conducted this investigation because of a complaint."

Shipyard officials said that they are responding to the findings and that they are confident employees have suffered no health problems.

The main issue is long-term exposure to the toxic metals, Flack said.

"There's no established limits for heavy metals because they accumulate in your body over time," Flack said. "The ideal situation is not to have any exposure to any of them. After so much accumulation, you start to experience health effects."

The most serious of the violations, which included a repeat violation, involved the presence of toxic metals in lunch rooms and on water fountains in buildings near Drydock 3 and Pier A inside the shipyard.

In November, traces of lead and cadmium were found during wipe samplings at two water fountains in Drydock 3. In October, a wipe sampling found traces of cadmium in one lunch room.

In the lone repeat violation, wipe samplings in August and December found traces of lead in "established eating facilities and areas where employees regularly consume food or beverages," the investigation said. Samples were taken in five buildings, including three lunch rooms.

"In all the other industrial sites and shipyards that I have been to that work with heavy metals, they do not allow eating, drinking or smoking in areas where those metals are present," Flack said.

PSNS has until April 8 to remedy the violations.

OSHA cannot fine the shipyard because it is a federal entity.

"We are confident we can improve on practicing and enforcing the requirements of the shipyard's procedures, and we will," said PSNS spokeswoman Mary Anne Mascianica.

She added that noncompliance with PSNS cleanliness standards also are being addressed.

"We are confident that our employees have no abnormal health findings from the minute amounts found on those eating surfaces," Mascianica said.

In only one wipe-sampling instance did lead levels exceed more than 50 micrograms per square foot. Lead levels for children are recommended not to exceed 400 micrograms per square foot adults have a much higher tolerance, Department of Health toxicologist Jim White said.

He said the exposures for lead in OSHA's report are not considered high for short-term exposure.

However, lead exposure is the leading cause of workplace illness in industry.

"Lead is a widespread concern," White said. "That's why they got rid of lead in gas, paints and tin cans for holding food."

Blood samples of 60 shipyard employees examined as part of the investigation came back clean, Flack said.

Mascianica said the shipyard's medical surveillance program has been critical in preventing long-term exposure to toxic metals. She said the shipyard is "very conservative" in removing employees who show a certain level of lead in their blood.

"The Navy's medical surveillance program for lead and cadmium meets or exceeds the OSHA standard by using more stringent criteria for biological monitoring," she said.

OSHA's standard for blood lead is 40 micrograms of lead per 100 grams of whole blood. The Navy requires employee removal at 30 micrograms, but PSNS is twice as stringent as OSHA at 20 micrograms, Mascianica said.

There have never been any job-related blood lead results at the shipyard over the OSHA limits and none in the past three years over the Navy limit.

Because cadmium is a highly toxic metal, exposure limits are extremely low. Ingested or inhaled, cadmium can cause lung cancer or kidney damage.

How a person's health is generally affected by exposure is difficult to determine, White said.

"It's all very individual," White said. "Different people have different reactions to various chemicals. It's impossible to predict."

That's why the shipyard unions want their membership's medical records to reflect the cadmium and lead exposure.

"They've had exposure over a long period of a time," said Bob Steinmetz, president of the local chapter of the International Federation of Professional Technical Engineers. "My major concern is that these exposures are added to employees' medical records to say that they've been exposed.

"The question really is what kind of impact does this have on somebody? Everything is accumulative."

Steinmetz also said he is concerned about sailors and contractors who work in the same environment.

"It's a family issue," he said. "They eat with us and visit the same places as we do. Who's looking out for them? I'm just as concerned about them as I am my members."

Four violations cited the shipyard for not providing or assuring that employees wear proper protective clothing and shoe coverings who perform torch-cutting or burning tasks in lead-regulated areas. Those employees are exposed to lead and cadmium above the personal exposure limits, the report said.

Workers in those areas were supposed to be able to exchange dirty or used coveralls for a clean pair every day. However, the report said all employees interviewed by OSHA said they exchanged coveralls every 15 days. Those violations were corrected during the inspection, the report said.

Other violations included shoveling or sweeping where vacuuming was not tried or once found to be effective. Sweeping in areas where toxic metals can spread the contaminants through the air, Flack said.

The shipyard is in discussions with its unions on all health issues, Mascianica said.

"Is there a better way to do the job we're trying to do? The union reps and production and management teams are working hard to address these issues," she said. 


Cadmium 

The primary adverse health effects of cadmium are lung cancer and kidney damage.

Cadmium enters the body through inhalation and ingestion.

It can't be absorbed into the skin. It is an extremely toxic metal commonly found in industrial workplaces.

Due to its low permissible exposure limit, overexposures may occur even in situations where cadmium is only in trace quantities in the parent ore or smelter dust.

Lead

Overexposure to lead is a leading cause of workplace illness.

OSHA has established the reduction of lead exposure to be a high strategic priority. OSHA's has set a goal of reducing the average severity of lead exposure or lead levels in the blood of employees by 15 percent over the next five years in selected industries and workplaces.

Source: OSHA