BATH — Bath Iron Works told its employees they should start wearing face masks to work to reduce the chances of spreading coronavirus, but union leaders say that would create a different sort of safety hazard.

BIW sent a statement to employees Sunday saying they’d  be required to wear face masks starting Tuesday. The shipyard specified that the masks should be “bandanas, scarfs, pieces of fabric held in place with elastic and ski masks that cover the mouth and nose” rather than medical-grade masks and N-95 respirators because they are “critical supplies that must continue to be reserved for healthcare workers and other medical first responders.”

Chris Wiers, president of Machinists Union Local S6, said homemade masks made of cotton or other flammable materials would create another immediate health and safety risk in the shipyard.

“We work in environments that have sparks flying a lot the time, so you can’t have cotton things on peoples’ faces,” said Wiers. “We have to wear fire-retardant coveralls when doing hotwork, but now people need to wear cotton masks on their faces.”

According to David Hench, BIW spokesman, the company has “thousands of face masks on order to provide to our employees” and said face coverings are prohibited when doing hotwork like welding.

Last Friday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended people start wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain, such as grocery stores and pharmacies. Coronavirus can spread from person to person through respiratory droplets in the air, so wearing a mask reduces the chances of spreading those droplets.

The CDC says masks are not a substitute for other safety and personal hygiene measures, such as keeping a minimum 6-foot buffer between people and frequent hand washing.

The new requirement from BIW comes on the heels of calls from Gov. Janet Mills and all four members of Maine’s congressional delegation for the U.S. military to step up its efforts to keep shipyard workers safe amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Union officials have called on the shipyard to close or provide employees with paid leave until the virus subsides. But the governor cannot force the shipyard to close because it has been deemed an essential business — critical to the nation’s defense —  by the Trump administration, Mills’ spokeswoman Lindsay Crete told the Portland Press Herald.

“The decision whether Bath Iron Works can or should remain open is a decision that the federal, not the state, the government has the authority to make,” Crete said. “The governor is concerned about the health and safety of the workforce, and she has been in contact with BIW about measures they are taking to provide as safe a work environment as possible.”

Wiers received a letter from the Office of the Under Secretary of Defence, which outlines clauses in Department of Defense Contracts that explain contractors such as BIW “will not be in default because of a failure to perform the contract if the failure arises beyond the control and without the fault or negligence of the contractor.”

The letter continues to explain the shipyard is entitled to a contract adjustment if coronavirus impacts the shipyard’s ability to build destroyers for the Navy, however, the contractor must request the contract adjustment and requests will be considered on a case-by-case basis.

“The Government has not made contract changes or otherwise directed BIW to stop working, but it has communicated to its contractors the recommendation to document the contractual impact of the pandemic and submit those claims to the Government,” Hench wrote in a statement. “A claim is submitted when the impact of the event is known and can be quantified or estimated with a reasonable degree of certainty.” 

The delegation’s calls echo the demands of BIW’s union leaders who, for several weeks, have called the shipyard to close and give its workers paid time off. Those calls were strengthened when the company announced a second BIW employee tested positive for coronavirus last Thursday evening.

On Monday the U.S. Navy announced a civilian employee at Kittery-based Portsmouth Naval Shipyard died due to coronavirus complications.

Statewide, 499 Mainers have tested positive for the virus as of Monday, an increase of 29 from Sunday, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The number of deaths remained at 10.

BIW has allowed workers to take unpaid leave, or use allotted paid time off, if they were concerned about catching the virus. About half of BIW’s workforce showed up for work last week, the union said.

“The Navy is BIW’s only customer and they have been clear that their expectation is for BIW and all of its other shipyards to remain open as an Essential Critical Infrastructure Industry and we have a special responsibility to maintain our normal work schedule,” Hench wrote. “Our job is to do the best we can with our available workforce and materials to meet the parameters the Navy has established.”


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