U.S. Fails to Protect Workers in Antarctica

~By Sophia Tewa~

An unusual man, David Pecheco decided at the age of 50 that he wanted to live the rest of his life in the treacherous South Pole, his wife Tina by his side. In October 2003, he took a job as a journeyman plumber and moved to the McMurdo Station in the southernmost tip of Antarctica, the hub of the United States’ scientific research efforts in the region.

The thrill didn’t last long.  On the morning of January 28, 2007, David Pacheco was sent to an empty building to drain and put antifreeze on pipes without knowing that the electricity was still on. When the water slashed out of the pipes, it conducted two lines of 277 volts throughout his body.

He flew 20 feet in the air. For a minute his heartbeat stopped.

“Your brain works but your body doesn’t work and you start shaking like a fish and then you try to get up and you can’t,” he said. “It’s like winning a lottery that I am alive.”

When his supervisors finally arrived, it took them an hour and a half to turn off the electricity.

“I saw them running around with blueprints,” said his wife Tina Pacheco who worked at McMurdo as an administrative assistant. “They couldn’t even figure out where the switch was to turn off the electricity. And then later they blamed David for not turning it off. And that’s just, on so many levels, that’s ridiculous.”

After several years of physical therapy for brain and nerve damage, Pacheco is still not expected to fully recover. Liberty Mutual, Raytheon’s insurance and worker’s compensation carrier, didn’t give total disability compensation and never paid his medical expenses. When he tried to seek compensation, he learned the hard way that American labor laws barely apply in the secluded world of Antarctica.

More than 3,500 Americans live in Antarctica to support scientific research for the National Science Foundation’s United States Antarctic Program. Those brave enough to work during the three months of Antarctic winter in perpetual night, at temperatures sometimes averaging –80 degrees, are called winterovers. They have to pass a special psychological test to prove their ability to bear the constant darkness and confinement. Temperatures are so cold that planes usually can’t land in the winter, leaving winterovers trapped; evacuations are often impossible in those challenging austral winter conditions.

What do you do when nothing works at 80 below zero? It’s the cutoff temperature at the South Pole where equipment that would work on warmer continents suddenly stops functioning, resulting in numerous accidents every year.

There are 27 nations, including India, China, and the United States that send scientists and logistical support to Antartica to conduct research, but none of these countries technically owns the vast, icy land, and so deny jurisdiction over workplace injuries.

The Supreme Court decided that Antarctica was a sovereignless country out of its jurisdiction in 1993 when Sandra Jean Smith lost a wrongful death action in the name of her husband who died in Antarctica.

Hundreds of injuries have occurred in Antarctica since 2001, according to documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, but only three cases have been reported to the U.S. Department of Labor. This, despite the fact that Antarctic contract employees are entitled to special insurance benefits under the Defense Base Act laws and contract companies are required to report all injuries to the Department of Labor. But Raytheon Polar Services (RPSC), the company hired to run the U.S. Antarctic program, failed to comply with the law.

The continent’s unclear political status makes it almost impossible for employees to appeal denied worker’s compensation claims and assert their Defense Base Act rights in American courts. They have to pay state and federal taxes but are not considered to be American employees and are not covered by most labor laws.

“We pay the taxes and do not get the rights,” one South Pole worker wrote in an email.  She injured several times working three winters in a row outdoors at South Pole in tempatures that averaged 75 below.

She was on crutches this past season after breaking her ankle after falling face down a flight of metal stairs. Her employer failed to provide her her with the proper equipment, she says.  Her goggles fogged and then froze up in an instant of hitting winter temperatures, she wrote. Her mittens had no grip or traction and fell apart  with little use.

“We are inadequately protected against the elements we deal with. We are not provided with sufficient training or gear to do what we need to do,” she wrote.

In 2008, the National Science Foundation in Antarctica could only retain 60% of its contract employees from the summer season, according to safety and injury reports obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request. Auditors also found out that the  work sites had outdated and unusable equipment.

In 2004, a Massachusetts district held that the Fair Labor Standards Act overtime pay rate is not applicable in a foreign country such as Antarctica. The court based its decision on the 1961 Antarctic Treaty, which specifies that Antarctica is not under the sovereignty of any government.

But the IRS held that Antarctica was not a foreign country for tax purposes. The United States Tax Court ruled against Dave Arnett in 2006, the lead case for 150 RPSC employees who thought they didn’t have to pay taxes since Antarctica was a foreign country.

Raytheon Polar Services found more than one hundred instances of health and safety non-compliance in 2006 after the contractor inspected its facilities, according to safety and injury reports obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request.

Raytheon also found out that the buildings didn’t have enough equipment available. Much of it was outdated and unusable. Research stations are deteriorating from age and use, according to the audit report. For every major injury that occurs, there were 29 minor injuries and 330 near misses or unsafe acts, the reports shows.

Raytheon Polar Services is supposed to follow the federal regulation of the Safety and Health Administration’s federal regulation (OSHA) and reports all OSHA recordable injuries to the National Science Foundation. They can result in restricted or lost work time. Raytheon Polar Services blamed budgets cuts, which caused them to reduce the summer staff from 750 to 670. The report also suggest that injuries are related to less job specific training before the start of the summer season.

Before they leave for the Ice, employees are warned about the medical risks that come with living and working in the coldest of all continents. Most of them work at the three year-round stations of South Pole, McMurdo and Palmer to support scientific research and logistics. During the Antarctic summer, from November to March, the population in Antarctica is at its highest, about 1,000 workers at the McMurdo station and 250 at the Scott-Amundsen South Pole station.

All NSF-Sponsored personnel traveling to Antarctica have to sign a form informing them that “travel to Antarctica imparts certain risks to the traveler, because of harsh environmental conditions encountered, limitations in the medical care available in Antarctica, and difficulties, in emergencies, of providing timely evacuation to tertiary medical care facilities on New Zealand, South America, or in the United States.”

Heavy machinery accidents were numerous with an employee’s left leg run over by a Mattrack, another worker crushed by a heavy flat bed trailer, and an employee injured while driving a bulldozer by the ice pier.

“About any legal opinion will reach the conclusion that workers may be entitled to DBA [Defense Base Act] benefits,” Bruce H. Nicholson, Defense Base Act attorney, said. “But clearer answers require people asserting their rights to compensation and treatment.”

A building commissioned in January 2008 was not up to the OSHA and the National Fire Protection Agency American codes, a South Pole senior safety employee wrote. Fire sprinkler heads were not in the right place, handrails, siderails and toekicks were missing leaving large gaps and exit signs were incorrectly hung.

“They rely on a flux of people that changes so that problems just sort of go away with the next season’s turnover,” she wrote.

In Antarctica, Pacheco saw a lot of accidents go unreported.

RPSC employees only have access to Raytheon doctors and fear that reporting injuries may lead to a reduction of their annual bonuses and affect their chances of being rehired. There is a medical underground of medical technicians and physician assistants that are not employed as such on the Ice but treat injuries when workers fear that it may reflect on their job evaluations, workers said.

Since employees are technically always on their job site, any injury even off-duty or recreational should be covered by RPSC’s insurance carrier Liberty Mutual. But it doesn’t always happen. The average worker’s comp cost per injury is $13,261. Liberty Mutual managed to reduce claims by about $1.2 million in 2002, Raytheon reported.

Liberty Mutual, Raytheon’s insurance and worker’s compensation carrier, never paid Pacheco’s $14,000 New Zealand hospital bill.  In the United States, the Pachecos were left to pay for most of their medical expenses. They’re now $20,000 in debt on credit cards.

“I am in the mercy of Liberty Mutual right now,” Pacheco said.

This is common, Raytheon employees say. “It is easier for Liberty Mutual to deny one of our claims because by the time we contact them we are unemployed, or between contracts,” a worker wrote.  “Liberty Mutual is renowned for and feared by RPSC employees for not accepting worker’s compensation claims for those injuries for which there may be any personal blame.”

Raytheon Polar Services, a subsidiary of defense contractor Raytheon based in Centennial, Colorado, took over the management of American activities in Antarctica in 1999. Last year, the government allocated about $295 million for RPSC to run the U.S. Antarctic Program. Their contract is supposed to end on March 31, 2012 but the contractor hopes to win the next contract bidding by then.

Pacheco said that Jim Scott, the head of McMurdo told him that Raytheon didn’t receive enough funding to update the building to safety standards.  Pacheco feels lucky for receiving any compensation and doesn’t hope he will ever receive full compensation from Raytheon.

“Nobody wants to take the case because it’s out in Colorado, and then it’s another nation, it’s not a territory. It’s nothing,” Pacheco said. “It’s a sweetheart deal in the fine print.”



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  3. Christopher Saputa MD says:

    I can repeat and verify everything and more here. I was McMurdo Physician W2009 and severely injured(2shouldersw, knee, C-Spine and LS discs doing heavy labor(as physician that ended up against SOPs manual never given to me. The end of season bonus was the threat to perform theseat risk of demotion. Later, an employee told me I was being “hazed”.
    Liberty treated the very physician hired to treat wWC injuries on base as a McDonalds employee of questionable VISA status. In exploration, mega corporate fraud is found. The statistics don’t show, because RTSC LLC which has the NSF contract(NOT Raytheon Company), operates under an illegal Fictitious Name “Raytheon Polar Services Co”. This is a dba, not a legal corporate entity, and being unregistered is a CRS crimional violation. That’s why RPSC doesn’t show on any records for injuries. Furthermore, RTSC LLC in Complicity with Liberty Mutual and Raytheon Company, the holder of the Liberty umbrella liability policy, falsifies identity in claims, by not reporting as Raytheon technical Services Co LLC(out of Reston, VA), as legally should, as a registered fLLC in CO. Instead, as in my case, they filed under Raytheon Company(out of Boston), and the CO WC accepts it, even though corporate law governing LLC formations and registrations prohibits transfers of liability to members/shareholders. Just because Raytheon Company is full owner of RTSC LLC doesn’t allow the name swap. It’s like suing the person paying the bill, like VISA, rather than the legally responsible entity on contract, doing business. The LLC is a separate legal entity, liable to itself in name and all reporting. But Liberty goes along with this misreporting both to CO. OSHA, Dept. Labor, and NCCI, the mandated Insurer reviewer, which requires accurate employer, work location and injury severity detailing for auditing for risk pool assessment and rate adjustments.
    Not only this, but I was injured in three separate events, unrelated, to different body areas, and they bundled it all into one claim, thus limiting cap on total payments, and also falsified date to the day I was examined by flight surgeon, giving the impression I had one accident the day before I left at WINFLY2009.
    Looking further, RPSC(false business name) RTSC LLC at 7400 S. Tucson Way, Centennial somehow managed to just get a Centennial city license, but kept off the Arapahoe County property Tax roster and stae wage /UI reporting roster. The RPSC facility shows in Arapahoe as an empty office lease space, with RTSC LLC no where to be found. RTSC LLC evades CO State Wage reporting and taxes, and gave me an instruction sheet to call Virginia for Unemployment or Wage tax questions, claiming they report Wage and UI to VA, not CO. There is no law or exemption in existence in CO allowing this for the Centennial facility and employees(>1200/yr). But the stealth in no-registry slips them through. RPSC instructions clearly list a work site in Columbus, OH to be reported to VA authorities if you want unemployment, with a defunct PO Box and address to “Raytheon Support Services CO”, which is a defunct corporation off OH registries since early 2000s. The only legit info was the contact phone number which goes directly back to RPSC Centennial switchboard. Further tracking of the facility is hard, because Raytheon Company is named as the Lease Holder, and evidently leases the facility to RTSC LLC as a tax dodge/write off/name your own price bilking of the NSF for rent. So no registry for RTSC LLC in Centennial appears on CO county or state records to track. Thus, if they get caught in using the right names and locations on CO DWC claims in court, they may have trouble. Well they have, because they listed me as Raytheon Company, despite their first attorneys filing RTSC LLC correctly, and stated I worked in Colorado Springs and had one single injury event(exam date) reported to Liberty Mutual. As of now, Liberty had not allowed any definitive joint surgery from 9/09-6/11, finally letting one shoulder and knee get arthroscopy. They are fighting with continued false filing, and no evident CO OAC support in pursuing the irregular filings yet.(corruption or apathy). Additional to the Polar-NSF contracting are two important points. First, the NSF contract has specific wording stating Raytheon Company has no part in this contract and may not govern the operations or management. Second, RPSC/RTSC LLC has been behind schedule(major construction goof ups witnessed in power plant expansion)and over budget, asking for early draws or added funds yearly, yet, how is it that RTSC LLC, was able to act as guarantor for a $1Billion loan to Raytheon Company, as well as revolving $Billion credit account from 2001-present through mainly Bank of America? These are discoverable on bank loan searches. How can someone secure loanes/lines of credit, while begging NSF for more cash, and the loans/credit are right to the parent owning Corporation-Raytheon company? Some may say a very highly lined luandry-kick back scheme in exchange for Raytheon taking the liability claims in name so RTSC LLC will look pristine to OSHA, NSF and US contract bids and win them with falsely lowered insurer rates on the LLC, allowing lower bids for success, even though they don’t manage the cost and always ask for more. Why wouild Liberty agree to this? Simply, they have the umbrella policy monopoly to collect premiums on every new employee from every new won contract bid. Raytheon gets juniors kickback loans to cover books at whatever terms favor stock profile or tax write off. Can anyone see the need for DOJ, RICO/Sherman here, beyond dissolving the LLC for transfering liabilities, IRS fully taxing the remnant addition to Raytheon Company as holding, VA politicians being investigated for undue enrichment of diverted CO Wage/UI payments, with CO suing for them, competitors suing for unfair competition civilly, and OSHA, Dept Labor,NCCI etc straightening out the false safety/injury profile imagined through their shell corporate manipulations and false filings.

    Anyone wanting further evidence or expose is welcomed to contact me, or join me in my pursuits to just get treated and away from this nightmare monstrosity of corruption in company and state.

    • Christopher Saputa MD says:

      Additional atrocities:
      RTSC LLC ignored all OSHA regulations
      despite the NSF contract(available to download from NSF searches) specifying it must comply with all Colorado and Federal business safety regulations. These come in three significant areas.
      1) The volcanic dust which everyone filters through their nostrils, lungs and forever sweeping out floors and windowsills daily before the freeze snows come is a bonafide pneumoconioses risk, ie- silicoses, but also other mineral content. Everyone and anyone mentioning it, or PFTs(pulm.function tests) in the medical department was threatened with firing and removal.
      2) CO/CO2 detectors, which are mostly non-existent, but most especially in the very Hospital/clinic building. The building has not changed since the ’60s and maintenance and understanding is straightforward and should be delineated in a handbook. But none existed in W2009.
      The first Cat-1 storm piled 5 ft drifts around the front ambulance platform and walls and ice built up to disrupt the ventri flow rooftop ventilation stacks. Unfortunately, the doors to the furnace room and emergency generator(which we had to use numerous times due to mismanagement of the power grid and power station incompetent construction) were frozen and buried, including all intake and output vents, except for the roof stack output which was half iced over with wind forcing it back in. Needless to say, CO/CO2 was a hazard, and in April 2009 I, as sole physician, nearly succombed to asphyxiation while manning the clinic during the storm, while the PA stationed himself st the 209 dorm. I pleaded with the Fire Dept to check the levels, but was told to call back in the morning. After dizziness and nausea set in, I abandoned the building. No one ever thought to simply note the doors and vents should be cleared, and Med staff had no indoctrination to any building upkeep or cautions, saying just call the carpentry or fire departments. I had planned on sleeping earlier overnight in the secluded internal Dr’s call room, but if I didn’t worry about the storm and stay awake, I wouldn’t have noticed the CO/CO2 buildup by 1-2am and would have likely awoken a drooling idiot, if awoke at all. On return to morning hours, the Physical Therapist had already got there early and within 20-30 minutes, developed nausea and headaches, leading me to condemn the building until they maintenance staff would make repairs. The management for RTSC LLC did not take this kindly, and refused to allow it on routine reports to Denver HQ. The Fire Dept finally came around with a detector and noted toxic levels of exposure. It took two more weeks of complaint to force Denver HQ to get CO/CO2 detectors put in, which they borrowed from one of the 75% station buildings closed down for winter.
      Yet, as soon as WINFLY arose, they took them out, fearing angering the incoming expanded staff and researchers complaining, rather thansimply sending in new detectors with WINFLY. Logic would state that protecting the entire hospital, where you try to save people, would merit the detectors first, and OSHA most certainly states so, as does every state and federal regulation regarding healthcare facilities that hold patients.
      3. The final item never to mention, but a reality is “Radon Detectors”. Mention by me of them was met with immediate dismissal or sanction to my end of season bonus. Apparently, the ghosts of bad politics from the old 1960s nuclear reactor power plant they had on the above hill still haunts them, despite it being totally disassembled and removed with tons of surrounding earth in the 1990s. Yet, they couldn’t explain the residual background radiation persistence, and therefore banned any talk of it. But OSHA requires radon detectors in closed buildings with poor circulation and in areas of radon emission. Well, anyone with geology, physics and vulcanology background(hello!) knows that radon is a tracking gas for all pre and early eruption events in volcanic areas. Mt. Erebus is one of the only four perennial volcanioc lava lakes, in constant eruption
      in the world(2in Africa, 4th in Hawaii. Even though the lake was far from the station, we were down plateau, with days of steady winds into us from the volcano(which we observed activity spurts)in a valley between mounts/ridges and the coldness would leave the heavy Radon and residue radioactive daughter product dust accumulating in the areas. It may be low levels, but in Winter, you are exposed for 6-9 months without escape. This, on top of the volcanic dust inhalation(Radon has a 3 day half life, its daughters are solid dust, long lasting)is a medicaql hazard of chronic exp[osure meriting at least baseline levels and periodic testing. But RTSC LLC and even the NSF Station manager vexed and mention of these issues and their ire was felt (along with costly end of season bonus loss of 10%). The OSHA investigators are needed, but they may have to wait in line for the DEA and US Marshall who need to track the major Weed production going on in the camp by the resident veterans who knew which scluded or winterized buildings to commandeer. My drug screening of one FNG the last week before redeployment at WINFLY found him as positive for entertaining supplements as Rainbow Bright in Disney Land. For a newbie to have such at so late in the season, means the veterans have a modest surplus in the least. However, this did not please either the Station manager , Denver HQ or the NSF manager, and led to further condemnation as the base personneltried to pin it all on one petite little worker just leaving for good, and Denver HQ was too busy explaining(covering up) the vial of peculiar white powder and crystals found in RPSCs Centennial work floor. OSHA is the least of worries in the Polar Management, and I haven’t even mentioned the plura of pharmacy irregularities unexplained by the Summer “Doc”,that management tried to force a cover up.
      It’s a wonder I didn’t find Sleepy, Sneezy, Grumpy, Happy, Bashful and Dopey tending to Snow White in this fractured fairy tale of a set up.