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Fraser settles suit, 60 exposed to lead to receive $7.5M

Boilermakers take apart the old boiler in the Herbert C. Jackson in Fraser Shipyards to make room for a new engine in February 2016. (News Tribune / file)

A group of 60 workers exposed to dangerous levels of lead at Fraser Shipyards will receive a $7.5 million settlement.

The agreement was announced Wednesday afternoon, putting to rest three pending federal lawsuits related to lead exposure that occurred in the winter of 2016, when the Superior shipyard was working to repower the Herbert C. Jackson, a 690-foot freighter that was then in drydock. The defendants in the case and the parties bearing the financial burden of the settlement include Fraser Shipyards Inc.; its parent company, Capstan Corp.; and the Interlake Steamship Co., which owns the Herbert C. Jackson.

The first of the lawsuits had been slated to go to trial in December until the settlement was announced.

Fraser previously was cited by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for numerous violations related to its 2016 work on the ship and initially was issued penalty charges totaling $1.4 million. But OSHA later reduced those charges to $700,000 as part of a settlement agreement that also involved adopting a new safety plan.  

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention investigated the case, as well, and found that workers were exposed to airborne lead, especially those working in the ship’s engine room. A report by the CDC said: “The investigation findings emphasize the need to identify measures to prevent future events of lead exposure.”

Fraser Industries issued a statement in which its president and chief operating officer, James Farkas, said: “We believe that this settlement , which resolves all outstanding claims is in the best interests of all parties.”

The Rapoport Law Offices P.C., the Chicago-based firm which represented the affected workers, also issued a statement in which Matthew Sims, its co-lead counsel, called for stricter OSHA lead standards. In a written statement, he said: “Decades of science have shown that the permissible exposure limits for lead that were set by OSHA in 1993 are woefully outdated and no longer accurately reflect what is currently known about the dangers of lead.

“There is a scientific consensus that lead, in any amount, is harmful to humans. Important change is needed from OSHA to make sure workers are no longer exposed to this toxin that serves no useful purpose in the human body. This case should serve as a wake-up call to both industry and government that more needs to be done to protect workers.”

Another lead attorney for the plaintiffs, David Rapoport, commented in the same press release from the firm, saying: “This case cried out for justice, and our investigation revealed all of the defendants were grossly negligent. What happened at Fraser Shipyards should not be repeated anywhere. It is a throwback to days of worker abuse that should have vanished from the workplace 40 years ago.”

Rapoport noted that his clients will recover more than 10 times more than OSHA collected and said that unlike that agency, “our clients are bringing all of the negligent parties to justice.”

Farkas framed the settlement a bit differently, saying: “This agreement, and earlier settlement agreements with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration reached with input from unions representing our workers, ensures that we can move forward with a strong commitment to employee protection and business viability, in partnership with OSHA and everyone who earns a living at our 126-year-old family-owned company in Superior. Our business depends on taking the health and safety of our people seriously.”