Stormy Seas Ahead for US Shipbuilding Safety

Source: Project on Government Oversight, February 14, 2017

On Friday, the Center for Investigative Reporting published a disturbing exposé of the national defense shipbuilding industry, documenting how the US Navy and Coast Guard award billions of dollars in contracts to shipbuilders with lax safety standards. The article starkly illustrated the lack of accountability in the industry and the “unhealthy codependency” between the major shipbuilding companies and Uncle Sam. The article focused on one company, VT Halter Marine, and a deadly explosion at its Escatawpa, Mississippi, shipyard in November 2009. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) initially fined VT Halter $1.3 million for violations relating to the explosion, which killed two workers and injured five others, but later reduced the fine to $837,000. One month after the explosion, the Navy awarded VT Halter an $87 million contract to build an oceanographic survey ship. Since then, the company has been cited for other workplace safety and environmental violations, yet is still receiving federal contracts. The government’s top three shipbuilders—General Dynamics, Huntington Ingalls Industries, and Austal USA—also have documented histories of misconduct, including a $171,300 OSHA fine of General Dynamics in 2012 for violations at its shipyard in Bath, Maine. The Center for Investigative Reporting found a startling lack of concern for safety on the part of the Navy. …

Several factors have created this dire situation. First, the government has few alternatives when it comes to building or repairing ships. … Second, shipyard workers and their families have limited legal recourse for workplace injuries and fatalities, and the Navy and Coast Guard are more concerned with production than safety. … Third, federal regulations governing how contractors are evaluated and selected under-emphasize companies’ workplace safety records. …