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WI shipyard exposed workers to 20 times the lead limit, agency claims

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A shipyard in Lake Superior should pay $1.395 million in fines because workers there were exposed to lead levels up to 20 times higher than allowed.

That's the proposal from OSHA (or, by its longer name, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration), which has been investigating Fraser Shipyards Inc. since February. The company was also the subject of a lawsuit from a worker who said he was exposed to toxic levels of lead.

OSHA now says it found 14 "willful egregious health violations" involving overexposing workers to lead while they were asked to clean out and retrofit an old vessel in the shipyard late last year. It was a $10 million contract project, according to OSHA.

“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," said Dr. David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for OSHA, in a news release. “When companies prioritize profits and deadlines over the health and safety of their workforce, it is the workers who pay the price."

OSHA says Fraser knew the ship was old (built in 1959), knew it contained asbestos and didn't tell employees, didn't provide workers protection from lead and other heavy metals, and did not monitor those employees' blood levels as the six-month project continued.

Fraser: Worker health taken 'seriously'

Update: In a news release, Fraser Shipyards says it "strongly disagrees" with any notion that profit motivation or business performance at all affected the issues.

“We take the health and safety of our people and our community seriously," James Farkas, President and COO of Fraser Industries, said in the release.

Fraser stopped the work as soon as it heard about the high levels of lead, and also began working with nearby medical experts to oversee worker health. The company has also bought "state-of-the-art" safety gear and equipment to protect workers.

In the release, a union head for the workers said they "appreciate their responsiveness to getting this issue fixed and taking care of our members."

Blood tests done

OSHA did blood tests in February and March and found 14 employees overexposed to lead. More than three-quarters of the 120-plus other workers tested by the company also had elevated blood levels, OSHA said.

Fraser is owned by a company based in Duluth, but this specific project was happening at Fraser's shipyards in in Superior.

The company has 15 days to pay up, request a conference with OSHA, or contest the findings.

Rob Karwath, a spokesperson with North Coast Communications, told BringMeTheNews Fraser has requested a settlement conference with OSHA, but has not heard back on a date.

More on lead poisoning

The Mayo Clinic says even small amounts of lead – which can build up in a human body over years – can be dangerous. Too much can be deadly, and in children it can affect development and mental capacity.

In adults, symptoms include things like high blood pressure, memory loss, headaches, abnormal sperm, pregnancy issues and more.

Google says there are generally fewer than 200,000 cases of lead poisoning (aka plumbism) in the U.S. every year.

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