Irving's Halifax Shipyard stripped lead paint unsafely on HMCS Toronto
Labour department ordered company to improve safety after 'fine red dust' found
Workers at Irving Shipbuilding's Halifax Shipyard who stripped toxic red lead paint off HMCS Toronto didn't know how to safely remove it, according to documents obtained by CBC News.
The frigate has been docked at the shipyard for a refit since last summer.
Nova Scotia's Department of Labour inspected the vessel in April and found "a fine red dust" built up on beams, paint chips scattered in the ship, and burn marks on the paint, all of which could increase worker exposure to the chemical linked to a host of health issues.
The inspector ordered Irving to fix it, according to a compliance order report obtained through freedom of information legislation.
"Not all employees including contractors were aware of the hazards of working with lead," inspector Shelley Gray wrote.
Red lead paint was once commonly used as a sealer to protect metal. Because of its toxicity, workers must wear respirators and use other protection when removing it. It also shouldn't be burned because that increases the potential exposure.
According to the World Health Organization, lead exposure can cause a "spectrum of injury across multiple body systems," from developing intellectual disabilities in children to increasing stroke risk. The WHO says lead exposure is considered "entirely preventable."
'In-rush of brand new employees'
Electrician Liz Cummings said she's the one who complained to the Labour department after spotting red paint during shelving work in the navy vessel.
"We didn't know from one boat to the next whether there was red lead. It was confusing," Cummings said.
That was compounded by the "in-rush of brand new employees [and] subcontractors," she said.
Irving passes surprise inspection
As of March, the company had roughly 1,200 employed at the Halifax yard. That includes nearly 800 working directly on the national shipbuilding program — double the staff from the year prior, the company said at the time.
Irving Shipbuilding declined an interview, but said in a statement the company "takes the safety of our workforce seriously."
According to the statement from company spokesman Sean Lewis, the company has since:
- Updated its lead-exposure risk assessment.
- Put all employees through lead awareness training.
- Gave employees removing the paint specialized hazard training.
- Cleaned the shipyard of "any accumulated dust or paint chips."
The shipyard passed an unannounced inspection by the Labour department June 21, Lewis said.
'An apparent lapse'
At the Halifax Shipyard, the tradespeople were working on HMCS Toronto, the last of Canada's 12 frigates to be refitted since the project began in 2010.
The Department of National Defence declined an interview, but said in an email statement that the need to remove lead paint safely "has been known and practised" for all frigates.
This situation was "an apparent lapse" by Irving workers, prompting Irving to clean the workspace, DND spokesman Daniel Le Bouthillier said in the statement.
After the Labour department became involved, Irving also tested the blood of 26 workers, which revealed normal lead levels.
Gray's inspection report, provided to CBC News by Cummings, said those were within acceptable ranges for people not experiencing symptoms.
"However, most importantly, blood leads should be kept from increasing into the zone where clinical effects may result," she wrote.
'Things can get missed'
Gray helped Irving better educate the staff, Cummings said, adding she's "very proud" of how hard staff worked to improve.
"Mostly everybody's very safe, but if you're not trained or you didn't understand your training — sometimes that's an issue, too — things can get missed," Cummings said.
"Sometimes people are in a rush and sometimes they're being rushed, but by and large, they're better now. They're definitely better now."
Cummings said her unit has gone two weeks without any lead-paint safety related issues.
Irving Shipbuilding has been contracted to replace the navy's frigates and destroyers to the tune of $26 billion, a project estimated to begin in 2020.