After Base Electrocutions, IBEW Members Help Improve Safety in Mideast
by The Electrical Worker, Fri Mar 13, 2009 at 03:15:36 PM EST
International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Boston Local 103 journeyman wireman Kevin Brashears was fearful of becoming another statistic: one more hardworking family man victimized by the economic free fall. But after experiencing unemployment like many workers across the country – and facing foreclosure on his mortgage – Brashears hit pay dirt in an unlikely place.
In March, Brashears shipped out to Iraq to work for military contractor KBR. He stands to make more than $120,000 for his 12-month commitment. At the same time, he looks forward to the chance to improve safety for the troops stationed at KBR-run facilities, which have been plagued by shoddy electrical wiring, leading to many troop deaths.
“I’m trying to do right by my family and at the same time help serve my country,” Brashears said.
Mired in scandal and facing critical heat from U.S. investigators, KBR – the notorious anti-union company that won Iraq contracts in a no-bid process under the Bush administration – is now attempting an about-face. Greater government scrutiny and heightened exposure are forcing the contractor to recruit a skilled work force, as opposed to outsourcing work to Iraqi locals or unskilled third-country nationals. The result: KBR representatives are signing up licensed electricians in the U.S. at a rapid clip, many of whom are out-of-work IBEW members.
“For some members who are unemployed right now, working for KBR in Iraq looks like a pretty good deal,” said Boston Local 103 Business Manager Mike Monahan. He cited the high pay and numerous stalled construction projects due to the credit crunch and economy as reasons more than 25 of the local’s members are slated to head out to Iraq. “So far, the relationship between KBR and our local has been good, and those members who signed up are happy to have the work.”
But even as IBEW members travel to Iraq to fix the problems, the company continues to pay the price for its past failures.
Following 18 troop deaths at U.S. bases – many of which are run by KBR – Army investigators in January recommended the manner of death for Staff Sgt. Ryan Maseth be changed from “accidental” to “negligent homicide.” Maseth was electrocuted in January 2008 while taking a shower at his Baghdad base.
The Defense Contract Management Agency has documented 231 shock incidents from September 2006 through July of last year – seven months after Maseth’s death. The agency said in its 45-page report that KBR “failed to meet the basic requirements to identify life-threatening conditions on tanks, water pumps, electrical outlets and electrical panels.”
The Army is considering charging two unnamed KBR supervisors and the company at large with criminal liability. No charges have been filed yet.
IBEW members who have worked for the contractor in Iraq have helped shine a light on the myriad problems at KBR-run facilities. Portland, Ore., Local 48 member Debbie Crawford worked in Baghdad’s Green Zone from 2004 to 2006. She testified before a Senate Democratic Policy Committee hearing last year about the poor management and shoddy quality of work she saw being performed by unlicensed, barely-trained employees working alongside licensed IBEW electricians. Maseth’s mother, Cheryl Harris, also testified (see “IBEW Urges Electrical Safety at U.S. Bases,” October 2008, The Electrical Worker).
“Some of us who went to Iraq were so stunned that we couldn’t in good conscience move forward without trying to right some wrongs we saw on the worksites,” Crawford said. “I feel strongly that it was our testimonies that got the ball rolling on investigating KBR’s actions abroad.”
Since then, Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) have pressed the Pentagon and the Army to conduct assessments of KBR-run facilities. “We must not only ensure that full accountability is served in this case, but that the Pentagon is also doing all that it can to prevent the future electrocutions of American personnel in both Iraq and Afghanistan,” Casey said.
Crawford warned members considering whether to sign up. “People need to go over there fully informed, and know what to expect – that they’re frequently on their own,” Crawford said. Appearing on MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show March 9, Crawford told 2 million viewers about water systems yielding high voltage rates that shocked many troops and civilians and how her foreman was not even an electrician.
“Things may not be perfect, but they are turning around,” says Savannah, Ga., Local 508 journeyman wireman Henry Blount. He worked for KBR in the Green Zone from 2004 to 2006 then served as an electrical auditor for Versar International Assistance Projects – a Colorado-based company – in Iraq. His recent duties included eliminating hazards in base infrastructures.
Blount was reassigned to Afghanistan last month. He says that while challenges are considerable, he appreciates the opportunity to help instruct Iraqi and Afghan electricians as they strive to make a better life for themselves.
“The IBEW brothers and sisters over here all support the troops, and we all support a safe work environment,” Blount said. “I feel confident I’m helping make the situation better each time I step on the job site.”
For Brashears, going to Iraq allows him to put the IBEW’s high standards to work in a changing and challenging environment.
“The fact that KBR turned to the IBEW when they needed more licensed electricians shows what a safety-conscious, efficient and professional work force our union has,” Brashears said. “I’m deeply saddened by the troop deaths and accidents, and I hope some military families will rest easier knowing that their loved ones are in the very capable hands of the IBEW.” (click HERE to read original article)