BIW workers leave the shipyard on Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2022. Kathleen O’Brien / The Times Record

Leaders of Local S6, Bath Iron Works’ largest union, are asking the company to create designated areas within the shipyard where employees can smoke tobacco after BIW’s zero-smoking policy caused “several housekeeping issues and increased fires,” according to the union’s website.

The union’s goal is to create areas in every facility where employees from every shift can smoke before their shift, during their break, at lunch and after their shift, according to a Jan. 19 post on the union’s website.

Employees working on the second or third shift would have additional time to smoke tobacco added to their contractual 20-minute paid lunch. Shipbuilders wouldn’t be allowed to use the smoking areas outside of those times, the union wrote.

“BIW is a tobacco-free facility and violations of this policy are not permitted,” BIW Spokesperson David Hench wrote in a statement Tuesday. “The BIW tobacco policy is compliant with state laws governing the use of tobacco in the workplace.”

The Times Record was unable to determine the number of fires caused at the shipyard as a result of smoking material.

Hench declined to answer questions including how many fires caused by cigarettes have happened within the shipyard in recent months and whether any caused damage or injuries.

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BIW Fire Chief Michael Clarke didn’t return requests for comment regarding recent fires at BIW Tuesday.

The company’s no smoking policy went into effect in January 2009, according to the winter 2009 issue of “The Link,” a publication by Maine Healthy Partnerships initiative created by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

BIW’s current policy “prohibits the use of tobacco or smoking products while on any BIW-owned or controlled properties, including parking lots, BIW vehicles, warehouses, out-of-state offices and ships under construction,” the publication reads.

BIW tinsmith Cory Brown called the company’s policy “unreasonable” because it requires employees to leave the shipyard, which for some can take several minutes out of their break times. Because of the inconvenience, Brown started smoking e-cigarettes because it takes him about seven minutes to walk from his station to the shipyard gates.

“I don’t get to eat or stop if I want to go smoke one cigarette,” said Brown. “If you smoke a pack a day, you’re not going to go eight hours without smoking a cigarette.”

BIW painter Paul Toothacher and BIW shipfitter Nick Putnam both said they’d be in favor of adding a smoking area because they believe it would cut down on stress and help employees feel less agitated during the day.

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BIW Painter Paul Toothacher said he’d be in favor of adding designated smoking areas for employees. Kathleen O’Brien / The Times Record

“When you need to smoke, it’s like the moments right before a panic attack,” said Toothacher. “You feel on edge and agitated. Having a smoke when they need to would allow people to take a step away from the situation and calm down.”

Though BIW employees can’t smoke in the shipyard, Hench said employees and their family members are “eligible for smoking and/or tobacco-cessation programs sponsored through the healthcare plan (for covered members) or through the BIW Fit for Life program, which includes coaching, support groups and access to nicotine replacement therapy, free of charge.”

Brown said some employees smoke cigarettes in secret rather than wait hours and use time on their lunch break.

“During the first shift when I work, the only time employees are allowed to smoke is during our 30-minute unpaid lunch, but there are a ton of employees who do smoke on the ships or in the yard, they just do it under the radar,” said Brown. “Prohibition is never going to work – it didn’t in the early 1900s and it isn’t now at BIW.”

Brown said employees tend to use ventilation tubes on the ship, which suck out dust, fumes and debris created during the shipbuilding process, to mask the smell of tobacco. Some employees, however, dispose of their cigarettes in the ventilation tubes, which is a fire hazard because the tubes are filled with flammable materials.

“I can go eight hours without a cigarette but for some of the older guys who have been smoking for years, it’s hard,” said Putnam. “The biggest problem is cigarettes getting caught in the ventilation system.”

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Bath Fire Department Deputy Chief Chris Cummings said he can remember responding to two fires at BIW within the last 22 years that were caused by cigarettes. Both fires happened in buildings in the shipyard and both fires happened over 10 years ago, said Cummings. Cummings said he didn’t remember either fire causing significant damage or injuries.

“BIW has their own fire department, fire truck, squad truck, and ambulance and they normally staff three or four people every day and handle smaller calls,” said Cummings. “If it’s something bigger like a building on fire, we’ll respond too.”

Cummings said fires on ships can be particularly dangerous for Bath firefighters to respond to because “that’s not your traditional house that we’re used to and you can get lost on one of those ships very easily.”

None of the BIW employees The Times Record spoke to knew of any recent fires caused by a cigarette that caused significant damage or injuries.

According to an April 2021 report from the State Fire Marshal’s Office, cigarettes were reported as the heat source in 345 fire reports filed by Maine Fire Departments between 2018 and 2020. Those fires killed seven civilians and one firefighter. Another 14 civilians and one firefighter were injured. The fires resulted in total contents and property losses of $1,926,651.

As of 2019, 14% of all adults (34.1 million people) smoke cigarettes: 15.3% of men and 12.7% of women, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Local S6 Spokesperson Tim Suitter did not return requests for comment Tuesday.


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