Puget Sound Naval Shipyard has withdrawn from a voluntary workplace safety program before the monitoring federal agency could terminate its participation for failing to resolve a known safety issue amid growing tension with its unions.
For more than a decade, the shipyard has participated in the Voluntary Protection Program, in which the federal Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration recognizes federal sector work sites that have effectively implemented employee health and safety programs that have reduced the number of injuries and illnesses in the workforce.
The shipyard has been recognized a VPP “Star Site” since 2006, which is the program’s highest level of recognition for participants that show “exemplary achievement” in preventing and controlling occupational health and safety hazards.
On Friday, shipyard commanding officer Capt. Howard Markle announced that PSNS would be withdrawing from the program and as a result, the shipyard would be losing its Star Site status.
That decision “does not in any way change our commitment to your safety,” Markle said in a statement shared with shipyard employees on Friday.
“The well-being of our shipyard team will always come first, regardless of our status in this program,” Markle said. “We will continue to be a safe workplace and constantly strive to be a safer workplace, whether or not we are a VPP Star Site.”
The shipyard’s decision to withdraw from the program stemmed from a letter OSHA sent the command in May to notify it that its participation in the program would be terminated due to “concerns regarding the site’s commitment to continued participation in the (program).”
The letter voiced a variety of concerns, including an administrative error in required paperwork, a perceived lack of response to correct a known safety issue as well as a failure to effectively work with the shipyard’s unions to develop and implement policies.
Based off those reasons, OSHA felt that the “trust and cooperation among labor, management, and OSHA, upon which approval is based, no longer exists,” and as such, the partnership should come to an end, the letter stated.
Once a site is notified of its pending termination from the program, VPP policy allows the site 30 days to appeal that decision.
If the site cannot adequately persuade the agency to maintain its standing, then it cannot reapply for three years after termination. If a site voluntarily withdraws from the program, it can reapply after a one-year waiting period.
While the shipyard was drafting a response to OSHA’s letter, the Bremerton Metal Trades Council, one of the shipyard’s partner unions involved in VPP, announced it would not support an appeal for the shipyard to retain its Star Site status and had decided to formally withdraw from participating in the program.
The union cited the shipyard’s “top-down, management-driven efforts” in shaping VPP polices without frequent input from partnering unions, said BMTC Vice President Ed Mannen. It cited a general erosion in its members’ confidence in the shipyard to adequately respond to safety issues,
“It’s supposed to be a partnership between labor, management and OSHA, and BMTC did not feel it was as much a partnership as it should be,” Mannen said.
Out of the more than 14,000 shipyard employees, roughly 8,500 employees belong to unions. The Bremerton Metal Trades Council has approximately 2,000 members.
Mannen said the issues have been ongoing and that the union considered pulling out of the partnership in 2013. At the time, shipyard management persuaded the union to remain in the partnership and revamp the program, Mannen said.
While things improved at first, Mannen said those improvements were not long-lasting.
“It’s not a fostering environment where an employee can bring any safety problems to light,” he said.
Mannen said the union was particularly troubled by reports that shipyard employees had been exposed to hazardous substances in Building 1109, the shipyard’s industrial wastewater treatment plant, without sufficient action to resolve the situation.
“We have seen the (shipyard) circumvent and controvert our efforts to remedy and rectify the hazards and dangers to our bargaining unit employees working in Building 1109,” union President Bruce Baillie said in a letter sent to OSHA and the shipyard at the end of May, notifying them of the union’s decision to withdraw from the partnership.
The union’s decision pushed the shipyard to withdraw from the program altogether rather than appeal OSHA’s termination notice.
“VPP requires participation from multiple partners, and one of our partners has decided to stop participating,” Markle said the statement sent to employees. “So, we have decided to voluntarily withdraw from the VPP.”
The Voluntary Protection Program forms a three-way partnership between OSHA, an organization’s management and labor unions who work together to implement employee health and safety programs.
Sites interested in participating in the program have to apply to join with the support of both the management and union, followed by an on-site evaluation conducted by a team from OSHA.
While sites are a part of VPP, they are not subject to scheduled OSHA safety inspections as they otherwise would be required to undergo. Instead, member organizations monitor themselves and are responsible for self-reporting to the agency.
The site must reapply every three to five years and undergo a rigorous process to maintain its status.
The shipyard had recertified its Star Site Status in 2009 and 2014 after initially joining the program. It was due to recertify its status in 2019.
In the letter sent to the shipyard’s command, OSHA highlighted shipyard behaviors it found to be problematic.
No letter: When a recognized site undergoes a significant organizational shift, like a change in command, VPP requires the new leadership to submit a letter affirming it will continue to follow the program’s requirements.
OSHA never received such a letter after current shipyard commanding officer Capt. Howard Markle assumed command of PSNS in August 2015, it said.
While the shipyard never sent such a letter, J.C. Mathews, shipyard spokesman, said PSNS produced a certification reaffirming its commitment to VPP at the time of the change of command.
Building safety: OSHA stated the shipyard had not responded to a known safety issue in an adequate amount of time.
In January, OSHA inspected Building 58, which is one of the shipyard’s oldest buildings, after an employee filed a complaint over the safety of infrastructure inside the building.
The building, which was constructed in 1898, is used today for light industrial work, training and office space, Mathews said.
The inspection determined the building had an insufficient number of exit routes, which all amounted to four serious safety violations.
Since PSNS had been aware of the issue since a self-inspection fire report first noted the issue last June, OSHA believed the shipyard did not appropriately resolve the problem in a timely manner.
However, Mathews said the shipyard had already begun to take necessary steps to mitigate the issue, such as posting warning signs, holding mandatory safety briefings, holding more evacuation drills and reducing the number of people who can be inside the building at one time.
Permanent changes to the building to resolve the issue have taken more time since the structure is subject to preservation requirements under the National Preservation Act, Mathews said.
PSNS awarded funds to a contractor to make necessary structural changes to the building and work should be completed later this year, he said.
More: 3D printers, virtual reality among technologies helping shipyard workers
Withdrawing from VPP isn’t an altogether uncommon practice, said Department of Labor Regional Public Affairs Director Leo Kay.
“It’s not unusual,” Kay said. “Employers have withdrawn from the VPP for a variety of reasons.”
Although all four of the Navy’s shipyards have previously held VPP star site status, that number has dropped by half in the past year alone.
PSNS was the third of the Navy’s four shipyards to achieve VPP Star Site status when it received the designation in 2006, alongside Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Maine and the Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Virginia. Shortly thereafter, Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard in Hawaii achieved the status as well.
While Norfolk and Pearl Harbor have both retained their status, Portsmouth withdrew its application to recertify its Star Site status in December 2017 after shipyard several unions declined to participate in the process, according to the Seacoast Online.
In that case, one union cited concerns over the shipyard’s ability to respond to safety-related complaints and employee fears of retaliation for speaking up about them as the cause for withdrawing from participating in the VPP process.
PSNS spokesman Mathews said the decision to withdraw from VPP should not have an impact on the shipyard workforce’s safety.
“The continued safety and well-being of our shipyard team is of paramount importance, and the voluntary withdrawal does not change PSNS & IMF’s commitment to our people and their families,” he said. “In the meantime, we will continue to ensure that PSNS & IMF meets or exceeds OSHA’s requirements for VPP Star certification.”
After the one-year waiting period has passed, Mathew said the shipyard could consider reapplying to VPP.
Union vice president Mannen said the command would have to have a fruitful conversation that addressed his members’ concerns before the BMTC would consider supporting a VPP partnership again.
Now that it’s no longer a VPP participant, the shipyard will once again be subject to OSHA safety inspections rather than relying upon self-reporting for safety evaluations, Mannen said.
“The No. 1 thing it means is that OSHA is coming, and they’re going to do inspections, and BMTC thinks those inspections need to happen,” Mannen said. “Maybe we need to get squared away a little bit.”
Read or Share this story: https://www.kitsapsun.com/story/news/local/2018/06/06/puget-sound-naval-shipyard-loses-workplace-safety-program-recognition/670021002/