Workers at Davie shipyard exposed to lead during Coast Guard icebreaker refurbishing

In the summer of 2018, the Canadian Coast Guard bought three used icebreakers in Sweden and had them delivered to the Davie shipyard in Lévis, Que. Workers were unwittingly exposed to toxic lead paint for months without protective equipment. Who's responsible for the safety lapse?

Tests reveal lead paint on a trio of icebreakers the federal government acquired from Sweden after work began

Three icebreakers purchased by the Canadian Coast Guard arrive at the Davie shipyard in Lévis, Que., on Aug. 27, 2018. Risk assessments found paint containing lead on all three ships, and workers were exposed for months. (Radio-Canada)

Shipyard workers and members of the Canadian Coast Guard were exposed to lead paint for months, without any protective equipment, even as their employers had strong reasons to believe the vessels they worked on were contaminated with the heavy metal, a Radio-Canada investigation has found.

The ships in question are Canadian Coast Guard ships Jean Goodwill and Vincent Massey. The Coast Guard acquired them, along with a third vessel, the Captain Molly Kool, from Sweden through Chantier Davie Canada Inc. in 2018 as part of a $610-million icebreaker procurement.

The three ships arrived at the Davie yards in Lévis, Que., in the late summer of 2018, to undergo various modifications. 

Davie subsequently delivered CCGS Captain Molly Kool that December, while the other two ships, which required more extensive modifications, remain in dry-dock.

Work on the Goodwill and Massey was halted in February 2020 after a Coast Guard risk assessment revealed paint containing lead on both ships.

By then, the Coast Guard and Davie had known for months that paint on the Captain Molly Kool — which was examined for toxic materials in August of 2019, nine months after it went into service — contained traces of lead. Conclusive results arrived in October of 2019.

"The results of the risk assessment were communicated the same day to Chantier Davie Canada Inc.," the federal agency said in an statement emailed to Radio-Canada.

Yet measures to guard against shipyard workers' exposure to lead weren't put into place until after work was halted Feb. 12.

In short, dozens were unwittingly in the presence of lead particles for more than a year.

Severe illness can result from contact with lead, including brain and nervous system damage. Health Canada's website says "currently there is no known safe level of lead exposure."

When the Coast Guard and Davie found out there was a problem on the Captain Molly Kool, it took an additional four months before work was paused on the other ships.

Multiple maritime industry sources said the Coast Guard and Davie should immediately have suspected that the other two icebreakers — which are built to identical specifications — contained lead, and should have acted accordingly.

But the question of who's responsible for the potentially dangerous safety lapse appears to be a matter of debate.

The Canadian Coast Guard ship Jean Goodwill in dry dock in December of 2019. work on the ship stopped in February after the risk assessment's findings became known. (Marc Godbout/Radio-Canada)

Workers 'needlessly exposed' to lead

The Coast Guard, which declined Radio-Canada's interview request, did not compile a detailed inventory of possible risks prior to buying the vessels, or before they were handed over to Davie.

The agency said it had foreseen conducting inspections "after they were delivered and entered into the fleet," as it eventually did with the Captain Molly Kool.

The federal government did send several teams to Sweden prior to the contracts being signed to determine whether they ships met the Coast Guard's "operational and technical requirements."

Once the contracts were inked, in the summer of 2018, the agency said it "sent various personnel both on board the ships and on the ground in Sweden to familiarize themselves with the vessels, to train, and to acquire … practical knowledge during their transit to Canada."

But according to the Coast Guard, no efforts were made to check for the presence of toxic materials.

Those trips represent a wasted opportunity, according to retired Canadian Coast Guard marine engineering officer François Fournier.

"When a ship is of interest, they can go a little deeper by asking for reports on asbestos, mercury or lead," he said. "I think that would have been a good way to check."

The Coast Guard also wasn't oblivious to the prospect lead pain might be discovered on the vessels.

In its email, the Coast Guard acknowledged older vessels often have one or more coats of lead paint, adding "every industry that looks after these ships … is conscious of that possibility."

Workers were "needlessly exposed" to lead, Fournier said.

The shipyard's responsibility?

The Coast Guard contends it was the Davie shipyard's responsibility, as the intermediary in the transaction, to conduct a detailed risk assessment before the overhaul work began, the emailed statement said.

But two sources, one of whom has extensive experience in the shipbuilding industry, told Radio-Canada that when the Coast Guard gave the icebreaker contract to Davie, the federal agency assumed full responsibility for the risks. 

When that assertion was put to the Coast Guard, it directed Radio-Canada to another federal department, Public Services and Procurement Canada.

The ministry answered: "We cannot comment on this issue because it involves privileged communications of a commercial nature between Chantier Davie Canada Inc. and [the government of] Canada."

When the Coast Guard learned about the lead paint, it didn't recommend Davie take special steps to mitigate potential contamination risks.

When asked why, the federal agency again pointed to its contractor.

"Chantier Davie Canada Inc. has lengthy experience in ship repair and the maintenance of older vessels, and understands its responsibilities and obligations in terms of environmental procedures including the identification … and disposal of all potential pollutants and hazardous materials," the agency said.

Davie says it acted prudently

Chantier Davie Canada also declined Radio-Canada's interview requests. 

Frédérik Boisvert, the shipbuilder's vice-president of public affairs, said in a written statement that the company took all reasonable precautions.

"As the leading shipbuilder in Canada and a major employer in Quebec, the safety of our employees and our workplace is Chantier Davie's top priority," he wrote. "We can confirm the situation in question has been managed with care, with no negative impacts on the health of our employees."

The letter says Davie ordered an immediate stop to work the moment it received confirmation of the presence of lead in February.

The stern of Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Captain Molly Kool on Dec. 14, 2018, the day it officially joined the fleet in the winter of 2018 after being purchased from a company in Sweden. (Radio-Canada)

The company then called in a specialized safety consultant and instituted protective measures.

In addition, Boisvert indicated 400 of workers underwent testing to measure the lead content in their blood at a private clinic, in collaboration with the public health department.

None of them had abnormally high levels of the metal, the company said. But the Davie letter doesn't address the four-month gap between the Captain Molly Kool test results and work halting on the other ships.

The company's letter neither blames nor criticizes the Canadian Coast Guard, nor does it admit to any shortcomings on its part relative to safety regulations or due diligence.

Davie did not comment on the Coast Guard's contention that it was the shipyard's responsibility to ensure there were no lead problems before beginning its work.

What did Swedish company know?

The technical specifications the Swedish company provided to the Coast Guard during the sale process made no mention of lead hazards, the agency said.

Radio-Canada contacted Viking Supply Ships, a publicly traded shipping concern headquartered in Stenungsund, Sweden, numerous times seeking comment, but the company has yet to respond.

Even if information was omitted or withheld, it doesn't absolve either the government agency or Davie from their responsibilities, according to multiple industry sources.

One of those sources, an active member of the Coast Guard, said both parties had the obligation to ensure the newly acquired icebreakers were free of lead contamination.

The Canadian Coast Guard ship Vincent Massey, which was known as the Tor Viking to its previous owners in Sweden before it was repainted and re-commissioned. (Radio-Canada)

"Yes, in compliance with health and safety regulations and best due diligence practices in the workplace, both parties are responsible," said the employee, who requested their name and position be withheld. 

This isn't the first time the Coast Guard has found problems with lead, the employee said.

In the last three years, the presence of lead in paint has also been detected on CCGS Amundsen, CCGS  Hudson and CCGS  George R. Pearkes, according to documents obtained by Radio-Canada. All three ships are Canadian-built and have been in service between 35 and 60 years.

The source said the Coast Guard "absolutely" should have suspected there was an issue after finding out about the Captain Molly Kool.

'I find them highly irresponsible'

The Union of Canadian Transport Employees' regional vice-president for Quebec, which represents both the Coast Guard's sailors and civilian employees, shares that view.

François Paradis, whose union includes members at the Davie shipyard, lamented the fact similar incidents continue to occur despite laws aimed at preventing them.

"There are folks who need to accept responsibility," Paradis said. "We're preoccupied with the health and safety of our members. Well, the shipyards and the Coast Guard don't seem quite as preoccupied."

Employees at Davie are represented by three unions, all affiliated with the Confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN). According to the president of the CSN central council for Québec-Chaudière-Appalaches, Ann Gingras, it was the Coast Guard's responsibility to inspect the ships before they entered Canada.

"I find them highly irresponsible," she said.

When Gingras learned Davie had been informed in October of 2019 about the lead problem on the Captain Molly Kool, she amended her opinion: "In my view there's a shared responsibility," she said, in an interview.

Work resumed on the Goodwill and Massey during the week of March 23.

The provincial workplace safety board and public health authorities will conduct safety audits to ensure the measures are being followed, and that they adequately protect the workers.

with files from Guylaine Bussière

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