You might think that the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (better known simply as OSHA) is concerned only with work site safety in private industries.
In fact, OSHA is the watchdog for workers in the private and public sectors. And recently, OSHA delivered a nasty nip to one very public organization—the U.S. Navy.
In September, OSHA cited the Fleet Readiness Center Southwest for infractions of health-and-safety standards at its Coronado, California facility, an aircraft maintenance plant with about 500 employees. OSHA said the facility exposed workers to highly toxic beryllium, cadmium and lead, as well as other dangerous heavy metals.
The Fleet Readiness Center Southwest is a major agency of the Navy, employing approximately 10,000 workers nationwide. As public an organization as the Fleet Readiness Center Southwest is, it is as much subject to health and safety standards as any private sector employer under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. OSHA, however, can’t impose monetary penalties on another federal agency. Instead it can issue notices of unhealthful or unsafe working conditions.
The Navy has “initiated an extensive plan of action to eliminate the immediate concern and ensure we are within OSHA’s standards,” Readiness Center Southwest officials said in a statement. A spokesman said the Navy is removing all lead-based paint from an old hangar at the facility and has closed the lunchroom for repair. Workers will be required to remove their overalls before entering the cafeteria when it reopens.
Workers no longer employ dry sweeping in problem areas, instead using wet mops to keep particles from becoming airborne.
Jay Vicory, an OSHA director, explained that heavy metals such as lead are associated with serious illnesses such as cancer, neurological disorders and fatal respiratory ailments. Two of the violations discovered at the facility were willful violations—infractions that are knowingly committed, committed without regard for existing standards and laws or committed with plain indifference to worker safety and health.
“Exposing workers to metals such as lead, cadmium and beryllium can result in serious illness and even fatal respiratory disease,” said Vicory. “We are encouraged by the Department of the Navy’s response to OSHA’s intervention, and we are working cooperatively with that department to further mitigate the hazards uncovered.”
The willful violations involved allowing the accumulation of cadmium in some areas of the facility; using dry sweeping of toxic dust when other safer and more efficient methods (such as vacuuming) had not been tried; and permitting workers to store and consume food and drinks in areas contaminated by toxic materials.
Two serious violations were also found. OSHA says a serious violation happens when serious physical harm or death will likely result from a hazard that an employer knew or should have known about. The serious violations in the facility also involved the accumulation of lead dusts and the use of dry sweeping.
The Coronado facility, North Island Naval Air Station, is the top maintenance site for supersonic F/A-18 warplanes. OSHA reported that Fleet Readiness Center Southwest was actually inspected three times in 2011. Those visits produced notices for 21 serious violations in total, including the ones for toxic dust accumulation.
There have been no illnesses among workers linked to the toxic materials.