Since 2011, dozens of workers at the Austal ship manufacturing plant in Mobile, Alabama, have been injured by a dangerous cutting tool. It was reported that management at the company had referred to the tool as the “widow maker.” Between January 2011 and March 2015, 53 workers were injured by the tool, suffering gashes to face, neck and arms, while some even lost fingers. This information came from Austal injury logs obtained as part of an investigation by the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR).
It was reported that Austal workers on the manufacturing side of the business had raised concerns to health and safety officials at the company in March 2011. Workers had complained about the cutting tool, calling it “unsafe” and warning that “someone is going to get hurt.”
The tool, originally a grinding device manufactured by Metabo, is designed to cut through metal in straight lines, but Austal swapped out the original discs for saw blade-style discs that are faster and can carve around edges. The operating manuals that come with the tool specifically warn against using saw blades, stating in the operating manual that “such blades create kickback and loss of control.”
Despite $60,000 in fines and penalties handed down by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for exposing workers to “amputations, severe lacerations, and other injuries,” it appears that a quarter of the 4,000-strong workforce at Austal may still be using the tool today. “The government expects that contractors, such as Austal, should not only deliver a good product, but also conduct operations in a safe manner,” Joseph Roesler, OSHA’s area director in Mobile, said when he announced fines against the company in 2014.
Austal has appealed the fines and penalties. Interestingly, it was reported that Austal’s top safety manager stated in a 2015 email to employees that all injuries sustained from the cutting tool were because of “carelessness, improper use and complacency.” However, current and former Austal employees have filed a lawsuit against the company, claiming it intentionally endangered them by forcing them to use the cutting tool that managers knew to be dangerous. Metabowerke GmbH and Metabo, manufacturers of the tool, are also named in the suit along with Southern Gas and Supply Inc., which supplied the tools to Austal. Brian Duncan, a lawyer for the workers, stated:
How does any company in America sit there and say, ‘I’m going to have dozens and dozens of my employees injured using the same tool,’ and not get another tool? To me, it rises to the level of intentional misconduct.
The lawsuit has been allowed to move forward by the court. However, Austal has already appealed to the Alabama Supreme Court to have the suit dismissed. The appeal is pending. J. Brian Duncan Jr., a lawyer with the Mobile firm Cunningham & Bounds, represents the employees in this litigation.
Source: Mobile Press Register
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