Contract with Danger

Congress kills rule forcing contractors to disclose safety problems

John Williams Jr., of Irvington, Alabama, lost his eyesight and part of his skull in a June 2014 crane accident at VT Halter’s Pascagoula, Mississippi, shipyard. Reveal's investigation of dangerous Navy shipbuilders has sparked a new law that requires a federal review of defense contractors' safety practices. Credit: Julie Dermansky for Reveal

Companies vying for federal contracts will not be required to disclose serious workplace safety violations after the Senate narrowly voted today to overturn one of former President Barack Obama’s executive orders.

The move follows a vote by the House last month to dismantle the 2014 order, which required companies vying for federal contracts of $500,000 or more to disclose workplace safety, wage and civil rights violations from the previous three years.

The Senate voted 49-48, largely along party lines, to toss out the regulations.

Democrats who opposed the resolution hammered on the safety record of one of the Navy’s top shipbuilders, the subject of a recent story by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, to illustrate why the rules were necessary.

“With so much taxpayer money on the line, it really matters that contractors are using it responsibly,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., told the Senate.

Warren cited a string of accidents involving VT Halter Marine Inc., a major Navy shipbuilder that was the focus of the Reveal investigation, as a stark example of why tax dollars should not go to dangerous companies.

Since 2009, VT Halter has received hundreds of millions of dollars from the Navy, despite a series of serious and deadly accidents at the company’s three Mississippi shipyards.

For example, two workers died and five were injured in a tugboat explosion in 2009 after the company failed to provide them with required safety equipment. Another worker nearing retirement was killed in 2012 when the lid on a pressurized pot sheared off his face. A third was blinded and suffered a traumatic brain injury when his crane tipped over in 2014. He had  warned the company repeatedly about a broken sensor on the crane before the accident.

The tax dollars that went to VT Halter, Warren told the Senate, “were supposed to be used to create good, safe jobs. Instead, VT Halter took a lot of shortcuts on worker safety, and now they have killed or injured multiple workers at their shipyards in Mississippi.”

Echoing Warren’s concerns, Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., also touched on the accidents in the Reveal article.

“VT Halter is a major Navy shipbuilder,” Franken told the Senate. “But its safety track record is deeply concerning.”

Franken recounted how a month after the 2009 explosion, VT Halter received an $87 million contract from the Navy. It then settled with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, admitting it had willfully broken 12 safety rules. Workers said fans and explosion-proof lights that would have prevented the blast were locked away to save money.

“It doesn’t make sense to keep rewarding companies like this with lucrative contracts when they repeatedly and … willfully disregard basic safety protections,” Franken said.

Workers and their families said VT Halter managers prioritized profit and production over safety.  

“It’s all about profit,” worker Roscoe Stallworth Jr. told Reveal in an earlier interview. “It’s go, go, go.”

Last week, Warren called on the Justice Department to launch a criminal investigation into VT Halter’s workplace safety record, along with fellow Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Patty Murray, D-Wash.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has been among those at the forefront of a new and sweeping deregulation push in Washington, applauded the Senate’s vote.

The purpose of the regulations implementing President Obama’s grossly defective and unconstitutional executive order was to give unions another source of leverage against employers for organizing or contract negotiations,” Randy Johnson, a senior vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, wrote in a statement. “This is a perfect example of a regulation that deserves to be struck down.”

Debbie Berkowitz, a senior fellow for worker safety and health with the National Employment Law Project, said the congressional repeal spells more danger for American workers.

“They don’t care that large companies cut corners on workplace safety or steal workers’ wages,” Berkowitz, a former senior policy adviser at OSHA under Obama, said of Republicans. “They don’t seem to care about an efficient use of taxpayer money. The bottom line is workers and their families lose.”

Federal regulations require only that government contractors show up and do the job. The federal contracting system was not designed to evaluate companies’ labor violations. That’s in part what inspired Obama’s executive order. But in October, a federal judge in Texas blocked most of the rules from taking effect.

Monday’s resolution will go to the White House, where President Donald Trump is expected to sign it.

Jennifer Gollan can be reached at jgollan@revealnews.org. Follow her on Twitter: @jennifergollan.  

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