2017 The Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award, Medium Newsroom finalist

Lax Safety at the Shipyards

About the Project

Joey Pettey has a pretty simple way of thinking about the danger he faces at his job.

“That’s what you got to do to feed your family in this corner of the world,” he says.

This corner of the world is the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, where shipbuilding is one of the few industries in which guys such as Pettey can find a good steady job. The work is so dangerous that Pettey and his co-workers gave their workplace a nickname: the Death Yard.

The investigative radio documentary by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting took listeners deep inside that yard to tell a unique and engrossing story of worker death and corporate impunity. The story started with classic investigative reporting.

Through the Freedom of Information Act and old-fashioned sourcing, reporter Jennifer Gollan pieced together a clear trend. Major U.S. shipbuilders would get in trouble for serious accidents and workplace hazards. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration would issue puny fines. And then the companies would continue to get rewarded with billions of dollars in government contracts.

That story came alive when Jennifer and radio producer Stan Alcorn hit the ground in the Gulf Coast to immerse themselves in this world. They spent time with the people whose lives were ruined by accidents and the witnesses who could talk about what really happened.

Pettey takes us with him to the Death Yard on its most deadly day. He recalls the gruesome details of a shipyard explosion and shocking management decisions.

But because shipbuilder VT Halter would not let us onto the yard, we had to get creative. We found another shipyard to show us how proper safety is supposed to work. We went out on a boat along VT Halter’s stretch of coast to listen to Pettey tell Bram Ates – who was badly injured, physically and mentally, by the explosion – that the bosses kept the proper safety gear locked up in a box to save money.

“That really pisses me off,” Ates responds.

Along the way, Jennifer and Stan drop in little details to bring us closer to characters. “People wonder why I don’t smile the way I used to smile,” Ates says while drinking his morning root beer.

Jennifer didn’t let the Navy, a primary source of contracts, off the hook. In a calm but forceful interview, her questions push Navy officials to stumble through their answers and ask twice whether they can put her on hold to gather themselves.

Back with Pettey, Jennifer asks why VT Halter officials kept shuttling him out of the shipyard when government investigators came by.

“What do you think they were afraid you’d tell OSHA?” she asks.

“The truth,” he replies.

Thanks to Jennifer and Stan, Pettey got his chance to tell the truth.