Shipbuilder Fined $1.3 Million Following Fiery Deaths in Tugboat

"This was a horrific and preventable situation," said Labor Secretary Hilda Solis. "The employer was aware of the hazards and knowingly and willfully sent workers into a confined space with an explosive and toxic atmosphere."

OSHA has fined VT Halter Marine Inc., a shipbuilder, $1,322,000 following a November 2009 explosion and fire that killed two workers and seriously injured two other workers who received third-degree burns. 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 Solis. "Loss of life can never be something considered acceptable or as a course of doing business."

Following its investigation, OSHA cited the company for 17 allegedly 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 OSHA Assistant Secretary 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. The site was inspected by staffers from OSHA's area office in Jackson, Miss.

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