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F/A-18 workers exposed to toxic materials

By Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times –

SAN DIEGO — Workers at the Navy’s top maintenance facility for F/A-18 warplanes have been exposed to “extremely toxic materials” such as lead, cadmium and beryllium, according to surprise inspections by the Department of Labor’s Occupational Health and Safety Administration.

OSHA has given the Navy until Sept. 26 to fix the problems at the Fleet Readiness Center Southwest at North Island Naval Air Station on Coronado or face an order to shut down the facility. The violations were revealed Thursday.

“Exposing workers to metals such as lead, cadmium and beryllium can result in serious illness and even fatal respiratory disease,” said Jay Vicory, director of the San Diego-area office of OSHA.

The Navy has “initiated an extensive plan of action to eliminate the immediate concern and ensure we are within OSHA’s standards,” readiness center officials said in a statement.

The facility employs 1,000 active-duty personnel and 3,200 civilians to work on a variety of fixed-wing and rotary aircraft. The OSHA violations were found in the part of the facility where 350 workers are assigned to the F/A-18.

Vicory said OSHA is “encouraged” by the Navy’s response to the violations and plans to work with the Navy to eliminate the health hazards to workers.

Two violations were deemed “willful” and two were deemed “serious.” The former occurs when the employer shows an intentional or voluntary disregard for health threats; the latter occurs when there is a “substantial probability” of death or physical harm from a hazard that the employer knew about or should have known about.

The willful violations involved allowing workers to store or consume food in a place contaminated by toxic materials, and in allowing “dry sweeping” that can make cadmium dust airborne. The serious violations involved lead dust and failure to control the spread of beryllium.

Michael Furlano, a spokesman for the readiness center, said the Navy is removing all paint containing lead, has closed the lunchroom for repair and has stopped dry sweeping in problem areas, using wet mops to keep particles from becoming airborne.

One of the hangars is almost 100 years old and was covered with lead paint decades ago, Furlano said. Beryllium has not been used in years but residue was still detected, he said.

Cadmium is a component of anti-corrosion materials.

New rules will require workers to remove their overalls before entering the cafeteria when it reopens.

Furlano said center officials are confident that they will meet the Sept. 26 deadline. He noted that there have been no reported illnesses among workers linked to the toxic materials.

The F/A-18 is flown by the Navy and Marine Corps and several U.S. allies. It is designed to fly at supersonic speeds in all weather, can be based on land or aboard carriers, and is capable of aerial combat and also attacking land-based targets.

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