Steelworkers union honors dead, raises safety concerns

Jane Hammond
Contact Reporterejhammond@dailypress.com

United Steelworkers Local 8888 honored members who have died on the job with a wreath-laying ceremony on Friday morning, while pointing out current safety concerns the union sees at Newport News Shipbuilding.

Local 8888's ceremony fell on Workers' Memorial Day, an international event founded by the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations to honor workers who lost their lives on the job.

As part of the ceremony, the names of 10 union members who have died while working at the shipyard since the union's 1978 founding were read, followed by a moment of silence.

Local 8888 President Arnold Outlaw spoke about safety concerns that face workers every day they report to the shipyard.

"We all should be coming home the same way we left. ... As long as I am the president of Local 8888, safety is going to be important and No. 1," Outlaw said during the ceremony.

In 2015, Local 8888 filed a complaint to the Office of Safety and Health Administration, claiming that employees who were injured at the shipyard were referred to a physical therapist in lieu of seeing a doctor at the medical clinic. The complaint also asserted that injuries that should be recorded to OSHA were not being properly documented.

According to a letter from the Norfolk Area OSHA office to Outlaw, OSHA inspected the shipyard in October 2015. On March 30, 2016, findings were sent to Outlaw that said that "employees were not provided a definitive medical diagnosis by a physician or licensed health care professional following work-related injuries."

Shipyard officials said in response that employees can voluntarily access a licensed physical therapist for job-specific exercises that are preventative in nature or in order to assist with mild symptoms and soreness.

"Newport News Shipbuilding's occupational clinic staff is incredibly proud of the medical services we provide to shipyard employees on a daily basis," said Steve Apostoles, the shipyard's medical director. "We provide an occupational clinic that is staffed with three physicians, a physician's assistant, an audiologist, eight registered nurses and a dozen medical technicians. The clinic is open across two shifts and provides medical treatment, follow-up and surveillance.

"On average, the clinic provides 50,000 services annually. We never turn any employee away from the clinic until they are thoroughly evaluated and treated," he said. "Our preventive care program sees both personal and occupational minor injuries, and the Tidewater Physical Therapy staff facilitates healthy outcomes."

The March 2016 letter about OSHA's findings also says that Huntington Ingalls Industries did not record all days of work restrictions or job transfer that were given before a clinic or physician visits for employees with work-related injuries.

"Newport News Shipbuilding received two OSHA citations in 2016 related to record-keeping. Both citations were withdrawn by OSHA," said Dru Branche, director of environmental health and safety for the shipyard. "In both cases, NNS provided additional training to workers and management to prevent future misunderstandings."

Hammond can be reached by phone at 757-247-4951.

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