PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) -- For a month 10 On Your Side has been investigating lead exposure at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth. Our investigation includes an OSHA complaint, and the Shipyard's own admission it did have a lead issue and failed to notify all personnel potentially exposed to airborne lead risks for 43 days.
Several shipyard workers reached out to WAVY TV about that lead exposure in the Norfolk Naval Shipyard's Weld School in Portsmouth. We started digging and learned Weld School Leadership, including the school's director, failed to inform all workers of their potential lead exposure.
That is, until Weld School instructor Walter Osbon came along.
"They knew it contained lead," said Walter Osbon, who has had 30 years on the job and is about to retire.
Lead contamination was found in Building 234 at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard's Non-Nuclear Weld School.
Osbon says workers were upset they were not informed about high lead levels in their work area. When asked if he felt workers were lied to, Osbon responded, "I don't know lied to, but they certainly felt betrayed."
10 On Your Side obtained the shipyard's response to an OSHA complaint. The Navy, in its response to OSHA acknowledges: "Hazardous working conditions resulted in potential over-exposure to airborne lead for multiple personnel."
The shipyard confirms on June 29, "once questioned by employees", paint samples for lead content were taken, and some came from weld booth ceiling areas. "These samples were received 11 July 2017" and confirmed "presence of lead in the paint (3.838 percent by weight)." That is 768 times the accepted OSHA lead limit of .005 percent.
"You got those results back and it contains lead? Bells and whistles should go off," said Osbon.
In the response to the OSHA complaint the shipyard admits they did not tell all workers who needed to know, and they wrote OSHA, "staff and uninvolved, but subsequently affected personnel were not briefed on the results of the paint sample analysis." Osbon’s response upon learning this was, "The paint did come back positive for lead? I said to them. You got to be kidding me. It kind of blew me away."
AJ Demong is a welder at the shipyard and was also blown away when he was told about the lead. "I had no idea where I was getting lead from.” Demong, during an annual physical in June, showed a 99 mcg/dL where a 0-49 is acceptable for Protoporphyrin Zinc (PPZ), which is a bi-product of lead exposure. That is two times the normal limit for PPZ. Demong explained, "For two months, I had my children tested. I had my girlfriend tested. I, to the best of my knowledge, did not know I worked (in a) lead environment.
"I don't go to work to get poisoned," said Robert Depue, a nuclear pipe fitter, working in the same non-nuclear area to make extra overtime. He had slightly above normal lab results for PPZ, 51 mcg/dL where 0-49 is acceptable. "I didn't come in with lead on me. I don't want to go home with lead on me," Depue said.
Then on August 17 instructor Osbon said four welding students became nauseous, "They were using some cutting processes, the burning of the paint was making some of the students feel bad, making them sick." That could be because standard practice is to remove paint from the area before any metal is cut with a torch. Sometimes they were not removing the paint first and not to do that is a shipyard and OSHA safety violation where from the burning process, the paint fumes become airborne and could even catch on fire.
Osbon remembers, "I noticed some of the pieces that had been cut, and there was so much paint on it you could see the layers."
After finding that, Osbon confronted the weld school director on August 23. "During that conversation they disclosed to me the paint contained lead," Osbon told 10 On Your Side.
Following that revelation, Osbon made sure everyone knew about the lead, and is disappointed it took him and others 43 days from July 11 until August 23 to learn the truth. Osbon said, "I couldn't believe it. It is egregious."
Thanks to Osbon's discovery on August 23 all renovations in the weld school stopped immediately.
The shipyard put up a sign that says 'toxic metal work area-for authorized personnel only' and the Lead box is checked. Then on September 13 the shipyard shut down the entire area for cleanup until the end of the year.
"You count on your superiors. You count on the people in charge to do the right thing. I mean safety has to be number one; that's what we are told every day," Osbon said.
The shipyard, despite having OSHA's highest safety classification, admitted that "due to the age of the shipyard" the presence of lead "should have been assumed."
As for Osbon, some of his co-workers referred to him as a courageous whistleblower, "You don't always have to stand tall, but sometimes you have to stand up. You got to say it's enough."
Since our investigation began two months ago two major changes have already occurred: First, we have learned the weld school director has been re-assigned pending the outcome of the shipyard's own investigation. Second, workers report that lines of communication among workers and shipyard Commander, Captain Scott Brown have tremendously improved.
Representatives for the shipyard would not do an interview but they sent 10 On Your Side two statements confirming:
Welders associated with this event are being provided additional testing, along with other non-welder employees...approximately 90 individuals have been tested, will be tested, or have declined to be tested...test results have been returned on 49 employees with zero cases of elevated blood lead levels."
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