BATH — Bath Iron Works will require employees to wear a mask at work starting in October, about seven months after the COVID-19 pandemic reached Maine.

According to the company’s health and safety policy, “Face coverings are required now for all salaried, Local S6″ and Independent Guards Association employees, and will be phased in fully on Oct. 5.

The policy is one of many created to help the 4,300 members of Local S6 integrate back into the workforce after being on strike for nine weeks. That strike ended last weekend when 87 percent of union members voted to accept a new contract with the company.

Tim Suitter, spokesman of Machinists Union Local S6, said the policy was created to help keep BIW workers and their families safe, but it isn’t a “blanket policy because there are examples when you wouldn’t have to wear a mask.”

“If you’re working alone or sitting at a desk when you’re more than 6 feet away from other people or eating or drinking, you wouldn’t be required to wear a mask then,” he said. “But, we know people are inevitably going to be in tight spaces at some point, and then masks are necessary.”

Suitter said both union and company leaders encourage shipbuilders to wear face masks now, but said they won’t be disciplined for not wearing them until Oct. 5.

BIW’s newest policy left workers scratching their heads wondering why masks aren’t already mandatory. Other workers are resistant to the company’s upcoming demands.

Prezleigh Fortin, a BIW tinsmith of four years, said she doesn’t wear a mask while at work because much of her job requires her to weld above her head.

“I’m worried about wearing a mask because it can be a fire hazard if I’m welding over my head and sparks fall on me,” she said. Wearing a mask “would impede my job, but I wear one when I go out in public.”

Fortin said she thought wearing a mask was necessary when she returned to work after the Local S6 strike ended last week, but said she was told she doesn’t have to wear one until Oct. 5.

The company attempted to make masks mandatory in April, but Local S6 union leaders objected because they argued homemade masks made of cotton or other flammable materials would create an immediate health and safety risk in the shipyard.

BIW Spokesman David Hench said in April face coverings are prohibited when performing tasks such as welding.

In a statement released Wednesday, BIW wrote: “From inception of guidance by the Maine CDC related to face coverings, BIW has maintained a policy that complied with those recommendations.”

“In July, the governor issued more stringent requirements regarding face coverings and the company has since engaged in bargaining on those requirements with all of our unions,” the company wrote. “The resulting memorandums of agreement between the company and the unions do not negate the legal requirement for compliance with the Executive Order by any employee.”

The company declined to comment why masks are not mandatory sooner than Oct. 5.

“By wearing face coverings in all settings where physical distancing is difficult to maintain, Maine people help protect the health of those around them and limit the spread of COVID-19 across the state,” Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention spokesman Robert Long said Thursday. “Wearing face coverings, washing our hands frequently, staying home when we feel sick, and maintaining 6 feet of distance between ourselves and others are all important steps we can take to keep Maine healthy.”

John Decoteau, a BIW marine electrician of six years, said he wears a mask to work every day to protect his girlfriend and family.

“I’m just being proactive,” he said. “I don’t need a loved one to die before I understand how important it is.”

Decoteau cited a 1989 CDC study conducted after a tuberculosis outbreak at the shipyard infected over 570 workers as an explanation as to why he chooses to wear a mask at work.

In its study, the CDC noted “Workers on the ships work in small, enclosed areas. … Conditions on the ships are frequently crowded; physical contact with people in some areas (passageways and cubbyholes) is almost impossible to avoid.”

“We’re in close contact all the time and it’s really hard to keep social distance,” said Decoteau.

He estimated about 5% of BIW workers wear masks while at work, most in management, who are required to wear masks.

Decoteau said he thinks people who refuse to wear a mask after Oct. 5 will “get written up.”

“Once you get two write-ups you’re in danger of losing your job,” he added.

Getting BIW employees to wear a face mask per Gov. Janet Mills’ executive order and the recommendation of the Maine CDC has been a polarizing issue for months, both at the shipyard and across the nation.

When local S6 was on strike for nine weeks, most Local S6 union members decided against wearing a mask while on the picket line for several reasons.

Kyle Jones said Wednesday he doesn’t wear a mask while at work because “we’ve had [coronavirus] come through the shipyard and we’re fine, so what’s the point in wearing one now?”

Nine BIW workers — seven employees and two contracted workers — have tested positive since March. The most recent positive case was announced earlier this month.

In March and April as the number of cases in Maine steadily rose, union officials and Maine lawmakers alike called on the company to close to prevent the virus from spreading within the shipyard, which employs 6,700 employees from every county in the state.

The shipyard stayed open, but said company facilities would be cleaned “continuously,” according to an Aug. 4 statement from the company.

In a recent letter to the editor, Carrie Callahan, a BIW employee, praised the company for its efforts to boost cleaning. However, she questioned the shipyard’s delay in making face masks mandatory for all employees because it “means we now face six weeks of potential increased COVID spread, compromising a relatively safe working environment.”

“In my opinion, this represents a lack of decency and respect between people who work side-by-side, and flies in the face of the challenges and hurdles we’ve recently overcome,” said Callahan.

The Maine CDC reported 4,414 Mainers have fallen ill with coronavirus since March 132 have died as of Thursday. There are 567 active cases of coronavirus.

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