“I never saw him again on the waterfront,”
Langhjelm says. “I believe his first name was
Gordon, a welder from shop 26, and at the time
somewhere in his mid fifties,” recalls Langhjelm.
“I can only assume that he went to the shipyard
dispensary for first aid. He had to have gone to
Harrison Memorial Hospital as an emergency
patient. He left the work area in an ambulance.
The incident never made it to the papers.”
What did make the papers in subsequent years
were a series of investigations into worker
safety at the shipyard by the federal
Occupational Safety and Health Administration
(OSHA). The investigations were based on
several OSHA “Form 7” complaints Langhjelm
made to the agency after his demotion from the
shipyard’s Operations Department. He filed
additional reports on behalf of the family of a
deceased worker and injured employees.
Medical News & Exposé
Betrayed: Shipyard Whistle Blower
| Puget Sound Naval Shipyard
March 1, 2009—Though he wouldn’t know it for
several years, Henrik Langhjelm’s economic ruin
can be traced to the morning of Jan. 28, 1995.
Hearing the pier ambulance's siren, he ran to his
office window at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard
Operations Department and watched a worker
stumble out of a thick cloud of green smoke at
Dry Dock 2, where a submarine was being cut up
“He was bleeding out of his eyes, ears, nose,
mouth,” Langhjelm recalls. “It was horrible. I
called my supervisor over to the window and
started making calls."
Langhjelm says he was immediately warned of
the career implications of what he had seen.
“My immediate superior suggested that I inform
the Captain of what I saw, warning me of the
potential to lose my position in the department,”
Henrik "Hank" Langhjelm.
Photo by Robert Farmer (http://rff.smugmug.com/)
Hank Langhjelm with his granddaughter in Bremerton,
Washington, 2008. (Photo by Robert Farmer,
The smoke came from cutting operations involving the use of an oxygen lance,
Langhjelm believes—a metal tube filled with magnesium rods that when lit with its
oxygen source produces a flame hot enough to cut through nearly every metal
type. Workers in the dry dock had been burning through submarine missile tube
Several violations were confirmed by OSHA investigators, including the presence
of arsenic and other toxic heavy metals like cadmium, on shipyard lunch counters
and drinking fountains.
Langhjelm was a respected member of middle management at the shipyard,
having received above average or excellent job performance evaluations
reviewed for this story since he was hired in June 14, 1983.
He had saved the Navy millions with a still-classified method for removing and
replacing components of aircraft carrier reactor plant ventilation systems. Navy
documents show that Langhjelm was to be awarded $42,750 for the $5.9 million
in cost savings resulting from this process (though he says he saw less than
$3,000 of that award).
Though saving millions in repair/modification costs, the idea saved over 20 ½
months of aircraft carrier down time for the fleet, returning each of six vessels to
duty three and a half months earlier than first estimated.
From that promising career, Langhjelm's reaction to the bleeding worker at Dry
Dock 2, and his pursuit of worker safety over his superiors’ demands for
institutional loyalty to a callous shipyard bureaucracy, put him on a familiar path
for government whistleblowers: a free fall into professional ruin and chronic
“I knew I was about to step on some big toes,” Langhjelm recalls.
According to shipyard employment documents, as Industrial Planning Specialist
for the shipyard’s Operations Department, Langhjelm was responsible “for
following and enforcing all established safety rules and requirements,” “for taking
prompt corrective action to abate hazardous workplace conditions” and “ensur
(ing) all requirements and guidance pertinent to the use, storage and disposal of
hazardous materials are fully understood and followed by the workforce.”
But when he told superiors that hazmat information was not being made available
to workers, and shared his suspicion that heavy metal contamination was
ubiquitous in work areas where workers were not donning protective gear—and
particularly when he raised concerns about workers’ exposures to cut smoke from
an pesticide-embedded anti-fouling ship paint known as organotin, administrators
accused Langhjelm of overstepping his responsibilities.
"They told me not to rock the boat, to let it go or I’d lose my operations staff
position,” Langhjelm recalls. “’Look the other way, don’t push the issue. Keep
your mouth shut.’”
He did not keep his mouth shut, however.
He pushed the issue with superiors—and was soon reassigned to what he
describes as “less than desirable duties,” including repairing scrap and garbage
containers, menial paperwork assignments and assignments involving hazardous
A number of the tasks he was assigned, Langhjelm says, would have been
violations of shipyard procedures and OSHA regulations, and he sees these
assignments as transparent attempts to destroy his credibility.
Immediately after he raised health and safety concerns with superiors, Langhjelm
says, he started running into pay problems. For a year and a half, paychecks
arrived late or not at all.
After pressure to resign and the offer of an incentive payment—an offer that
came amid delayed paychecks and mounting bills and anxiety—Langhjelm
agreed to resign from the shipyard. The incentive, he later discovered, had
apparently been deducted from his own contributions into his retirement fund.
Langhjelm met with OSHA officials starting in summer 1995.
“I (also) met with the Navy Inspector General’s representative twice, and the
National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), not to mention my
countless attempts to involve state and local officials, U.S. congressmen and
senators, the Environmental Protection Agency and regional clean water and air
officials,” Langhjelm says.
Investigators confirmed his claims about heavy metal exposures and repeated
eschewal of safety rules.
Even so, OSHA essentially handed over its oversight responsibilities to the Navy
in 2002, awarding the shipyard its Voluntary Protection Program “Star” status—
which makes workplace safety and health the responsibility of workers themselves
and ends OSHA safety inspections under most circumstances.
The day OSHA officials showed up for a final discussion of the new safety regime
with shipyard workers and officials, they noted serious safety violations, including
a worker wearing a full beard that precluded a safe and complete seal when he
donned a respirator.
When the OSHA official brought this infraction up at the meeting with shipyard
officials, OSHA documents obtained for this report state, a shipyard safety
representative shrugged off the concern.
But rather than halt the transition to VPP self-monitoring, OSHA officials simply
noted the response and walked away.
“The VPP program is effectively used as a coverall for the shipyard,” Langhjelm
says. “They claim a multi-layer safety program, yet clearly fail to identify
exposures to such an extent that the employer either has no idea whatsoever of
what the workers have been exposed to, or is not willing to communicate the true
nature of employee exposures to the employees themselves or any other entity
such as OSHA and the OWCP. VPP has become a universal tool used by the
(Navy), OSHA and now the OWCP.” (OWCP is the US Department of Labor’s
Office of Workers' Compensation Program.)
“The idea here is that the VPP keeps OSHA from routinely investigating work
processes that shipyard hygiene fails to identify as in need of monitoring,”
Langhjelm says. “This impacts the ability to identify and medically monitor for the
myriad of toxins and substances the workforce endures without their knowledge.
Under the VPP, workers are left to ask what they are working with in lieu of being
forewarned, trained and upfront monitored for health reasons. Complaints of
dangerous work place conditions under VPP are not objectively observed but
dealt with through phone call assurances and letters. The Injured Worker
Program is used to prevent claims to the OWCP for injury. If a claim is not
accepted by the OWCP, then OSHA is not informed of a serious problem or trend;
therefore no investigation and no injury statistic. Employees forced on medical
retirement due to their injuries also fail to become a statistic.”
It all amounts to “ a cruel form of attrition,” Langhjelm says.
The shipyard’s oft-cited VPP status, he believes, is just part of an interlocking
system of mechanisms ostensibly advertised to protect workers, but which in
reality mask the true nature of the health and safety problems, leading to the
unusual level of injuries and the denial of claims.
“The voluntary protection model is nothing more than a cost cutting measure,
both for OSHA and the employer—with worker health and safety in the balance,”
Langhjelm says. “In exchange for the façade of an aggressive safety
management program, OSHA will no longer routinely inspect the place of
employment. VPP gives OSHA a face but not a presence at the shipyard. It
implies OSHA participation when there is none. VPP merely provides the
justification for self-policing in my opinion; for the Department of Labor's
Personnel Management, a practicality regarding the lowest cost option. It’s
amazing what a label can do for perception, VPP is that label. The number of self-
aggrandizing awards, parades, slaps on the back and (picnics) all add to the
façade. The absence of any OSHA influence, I liken to a classroom of third
graders; when the teacher goes to the office for a moment, the crayon throwing
and spit-ball shooting begins.”
The other piece of that puzzle, he says, is what’s known as “Permissible Exposure
Limits” or PEL.
“They argue safe levels of exposure and that PEL is not exceeded, suggesting
that monitoring is not necessary if these exposures are within PEL,” Langhjelm
“Normally, this would be fine. (But) PEL goes out the window when the exposures
are daily and chronic. The PEL was established as a Time Weighted Average
[TWA] for an eight-hour period on an intermittent basis—not for an everyday, all
day exposure. It’s hard to protect yourself when you are not aware of what you
are exposed to. PEL is used to explain away a failure to notify (workers).”
The resulting calculations and alphabet soup—VPP, PELs, TWAs—would be
daunting for anybody, Langhjelm says—let alone workers exhausted by cancer or
other chronic diseases and chemotherapy.
“I find myself flabbergasted with the level of obfuscation and mumbo jumbo,” he
Langhjelm says his ostracism did not end when he left the shipyard. He believes
the Navy sabotaged his subsequent job hunt by refusing to confirm his
employment at the shipyard.
“(M)y former employer routinely refuses to respond to employment reference
inquiries,” he says. “This was proven in November 2003, upon receipt of an
affidavit from a company I hired to see what my employer was saying about me.
After 31 attempts over a period of 3 months, PSNS refused to respond to the
routine employment verification reference checks made by Documented
Reference Check (www.badreferences.com). No employer or recruiter is going to
spend three months and make 31 attempts to obtain required information of an
individual for prospective employment. To this date DRC has not received any
response to their written, faxed and telephone inquiries.”
Langhjelm has registered with numerous personnel agencies and online
recruiters and has, he reckons, “applied to literally thousands of jobs…over the
last 12 years, and have yet to find meaningful employment.”
“My ability to find employment has been impaired by the shipyard’s refusal to
respond to employment inquiries (and) the 12- year hole in my resume,” he says.
“Call it (being) ‘blacklisted’ or ‘blackballed.’ The deck is stacked and the poverty is
wearing me out.”
|"The deck is stacked and the poverty is wearing me out."
|"I am sick and tired of all the indifference I’ve encountered."