Navy Secretary nominee Richard Spencer testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee on July 11. Credit: Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press

President Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of the Navy has pledged to monitor workplace safety violations among private shipbuilders building America’s warships.

Pressed by Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts at a recent confirmation hearing, Richard V. Spencer, an investment banker and former Marine Corps aviator, said he disagreed with the Navy’s hands-off approach to workplace safety in the private shipyards with which it does business.

“The list of reported injuries and violations that these workers are exposed to is bone-chilling,” Warren said at the July 11 hearing. “The Navy is spending hundreds of billions of dollars at shipyards where workers are routinely injured and maimed because of lax safety standards.”

An investigation by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting in February found that the Navy and Coast Guard had rewarded private shipbuilders with $100 billion in contracts despite accidents that endangered scores of workers, including some who were burned, lost fingers or were killed in explosions. The investigation aired recently on PBS NewsHour.

During his presidential campaign, Trump promised the largest Navy expansion since the Reagan administration. His proposed budget calls for a more modest, short-term increase to the fleet, but it will provide more business for shipbuilders – and potentially more risk for workers.

The investigation focused on a string of accidents at VT Halter Marine in Mississippi, which contracts with the Navy, Coast Guard and other federal agencies.

In one case, two workers died in an explosion in November 2009 because VT Halter failed to provide explosionproof lights or proper ventilation as toxic vapors reached more than 600 times the legal limit, igniting a flash fire. A month later, the Navy awarded VT Halter an $87 million contract to build a 350-foot ship to gather ocean data and improve submarine warfare.

Asked to respond to these findings, the Navy said in February that it took a hands-off approach to the safety of workers in private shipyards.

“We are not the overlords of private shipyards when it comes to workplace safety,” a spokesman for the Naval Sea Systems Command, which oversees ship construction, told Reveal.

Warren asked Spencer whether he agreed with this stance.

“No, I can’t, senator,” said Spencer, who would occupy the top civilian post in the Navy and Marine Corps if confirmed. “I truly believe as we go forward in today’s environment – and we’re talking about, in the case of shipbuilding, amping up the production and the throughput – we have to have a sustainable environment. That does not support a sustainable environment.

“We look forward to making sure that we are good stewards of resources,” Spencer said.

Alexander Caballero, shown his mother, Sandra Lanier, was 25 when he was killed in a 2009 explosion at a VT Halter shipyard. Credit: Courtesy of Sandra Lanier

Spencer assured Warren that he would track and monitor workplace safety violations among private shipbuilders that win Navy contracts.

Sandra Lanier welcomed Spencer’s decision to hold dangerous shipbuilders accountable.  Her 25-year-old son, Alexander Caballero, was killed in the 2009 explosion at VT Halter.

“If someone doesn’t put their foot down, we are going to keep losing more young men,” Lanier said in a phone interview. “These shipyards think people are worth nothing. Our sons are nothing but a mule for them; they are working them to the end. And they are still getting contracts.”

Paul J. Albert, VT Halter’s chief executive and president, could not be reached for comment.

In March, Sens. Warren, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Patty Murray of Washington urged the Justice Department to launch a criminal investigation into VT Halter, citing Reveal’s investigation. Warren and David Michaels, the former head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration who is now a professor at George Washington University, also urged the Navy to stop contracting with dangerous shipbuilders.

Spencer was confirmed by the Senate Armed Services Committee on July 13. His nomination will go to the full Senate for a vote in coming weeks.

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

Jennifer Gollan

Jennifer Gollan is a reporter for Reveal, covering labor and corporate accountability.

An Emmy Award winner, Gollan has reported on topics ranging from oil companies that dodge accountability for workers’ deaths to lax manufacturing practices that contributed to deadly tire blowouts.

Gollan uncovered rampant exploitation and abuse of caregivers in the burgeoning elder care-home industry. The series, Caregivers and Takers, detailed how operators enriched themselves while paying workers about $2 an hour to work around the clock. The stories prompted a congressional hearing, plans for prosecutions and new state legislation. 

Gollan exposed how Navy shipbuilders received billions in public money even after their workers were killed or injured. In response to her reporting, Congress passed a new federal law, the Government Accountability Office produced a report and the Pentagon began scrutinizing the safety records of more defense contractors.

Gollan’s work has appeared in The New York Times, The Associated Press, The Guardian U.S., Politico Magazine and PBS NewsHour.

Her honors include a national Emmy Award, a Hillman Prize for web journalism, two Sigma Delta Chi Awards, a National Headliner Award, a Gracie Award and two Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing Awards. She has been a finalist for an ONA Online Journalism Award, an IRE Award and two Gerald Loeb Awards. Gollan is based in Reveal’s Emeryville, California, office.