SUPERIOR, Wis. (AP) — A Wisconsin shipyard faces nearly $1.4 million in penalties after it exposed workers to unsafe levels of lead, the U.S. Department of Labor announced Monday.
Officials said the exposure to lead and other heavy metals at Fraser Shipyards Inc. in Superior happened during the retrofitting of a ship's engine room. Officials said tests by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration found that 14 workers had lead levels up to 20 times the exposure limit.
Additional testing of more than 120 other employees showed that more than 75 percent of those tested had elevated blood lead levels.
Fraser Shipyards President and Chief Operating Officer James Farkas said the company promptly took action to protect workers when it learned of the problem.
OSHA began inspecting the shipyard earlier this year after receiving complaints of unsafe working conditions after Fraser contracted with Interlake Steamship Co. of Ohio to modernize the Herbert C. Jackson.
"Fraser Shipyards accepted a contract with a very low profit margin and penalties for delayed completion, but could not meet the schedule without endangering its workers. This employer was unwilling to pay the necessary costs to protect employees from lead exposure," David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for Occupational Safety and Health, said in a statement.
The agency found that Fraser Shipyards' management knew about the presence of lead and asbestos, but ignored regulations and worker concerns.
Farkas disputed that claim, saying the company takes workers' health seriously.
"We acted to protect our people as soon as we learned of the problems," he said. "We strongly disagree with OSHA's statement that any of the issues were caused or worsened by business or profit motivations."
Among other things, the company said, it halted work when it learned of the problem and purchased state-of-the-art safety gear to protect workers.
The company has requested a settlement conference to resolve the fines.
OSHA cited 14 willful egregious health violations for the 14 workers who were overexposed. OSHA also issued other violations for failure to assess employee lead exposure and other issues, and it placed Fraser Shipyards in its program for severe violators.
Lead overexposure can lead to brain damage, gastrointestinal problems, anemia and kidney disease.