VT Halter Marine and six other private shipbuilders were awarded more than $100 billion in contracts by the federal government, despite citations for serious safety violations. Credit: Julie Dermansky for Reveal

Dozens of defense contractors caught seriously endangering their workers continued receiving lucrative federal contracts, a congressional watchdog agency says.

In a new report inspired by a Reveal investigation, the Government Accountability Office said 52 of 192 defense contractors it reviewed were cited for serious health or safety violations from the 2013 through 2017 fiscal years. Workers in these accidents suffered chemical burns, amputations and even death.

In one case, a hydrogen blast left one worker pinned under a 20,000-pound lid, gave another second-degree burns and killed a third. In another case, a worker who fell 98 feet from an elevator was killed. In a third accident, a vessel became unmoored in high winds and struck a pier, pulling two workers underwater and killing one of them.

“The Defense Department’s contract workforce contributes every day to our national defense and should never be at risk of exposure to unsafe and unhealthy working conditions,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., wrote in a statement. “The GAO’s report confirms the Pentagon needs to crack down on its contractors who are breaking the law.”

Warren wrote a provision in the 2018 defense bill that required the GAO to review how the Pentagon tracks and responds to workplace safety violations among shipbuilders and other defense contractors.

The senator proposed the measure in response to a 2017 investigation by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, which found that major private shipbuilders for the Navy and Coast Guard had received more than $100 billion in public money despite serious safety lapses that endangered, injured and killed workers. The Navy declined to take responsibility, saying, “We are not the overlords of private shipyards when it comes to workplace safety.”

The GAO recommended that the Pentagon advise agency contracting officials to look up health and safety violations – which are published on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s website – when evaluating prospective contractors and consider rating all contractors on safety.

Pentagon spokeswoman Heather Babb declined to respond to Reveal’s questions.

But in a letter to the GAO included in the report, Assistant Secretary of Defense Robert McMahon wrote that his agency would advise contracting officials to use the OSHA website by the end of June. And by the end of January 2020, McMahon vowed to use safety performance ratings more broadly.

The GAO also recommended finding a way to determine whether workers were killed or injured on projects under federal contracts. To do that, it called for OSHA to collect a unique identifier from each employer that could be used to determine whether safety violations occurred on federal contracts. In response, Loren Sweatt, OSHA’s acting assistant secretary of labor, said her agency plans to send a memo to staff reinforcing the need to collect corporate identification numbers.

Jennifer Gollan can be reached at jgollan@revealnews.org. Follow her on Twitter: @jennifergollan.

Jennifer Gollan

Jennifer Gollan is an Emmy Award-winning reporter for Reveal.

Gollan has reported on topics ranging from oil companies that dodge accountability for workers’ deaths to shoddy tire manufacturing practices that killed motorists. She uncovered rampant exploitation and abuse of caregivers in the burgeoning elder care-home industry. The series, Caregivers and Takers, prompted a congressional hearing and new state legislation. Gollan also exposed how Navy shipbuilders received billions in public money even after their workers were killed or injured, spurring a new federal law and a review by the Pentagon.

Gollan’s work has appeared in The New York Times, The Associated Press, The Guardian US and Politico Magazine, as well as on PBS NewsHour and Al Jazeera English’s “Fault Lines” program. Her honors include a national Emmy Award, a Hillman Prize for web journalism, two Sigma Delta Chi Awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, a National Headliner Award, a Gracie Award and two Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing awards. Gollan is based in the San Francisco Bay Area.