Savannah River Site executives have investigated two recent incidents in which nooses were found on site property.
Site executives said the events were merely the results of carelessness or ill-considered jokes by co-workers, and were not meant as threats toward blacks or other minorities. Some black employees of the federal nuclear weapons site disagreed.
"It's a symptom of an underlying problem at the site, and it begs to be fixed," said Willar Hightower, an Aiken County councilman who retired from the site July 31. "For whatever reason, there are some very serious racial problems at SRS."
The site already faces allegations of racial discrimination. More than 90 current and former black employees, including Mr. Hightower, have filed racial discrimination lawsuits against four SRS contractors.
In separate e-mails sent Oct. 26 and Monday, the president of one contractor warned employees to be more sensitive toward co-workers.
"I want to make sure my point is clear: What may seem harmless to one person can be harmful or intimidating to another," wrote Joe Buggy, president of Westinghouse Savannah River Co., in the message sent Monday.
"The existence of a noose in the workplace - even if it was not directed at an individual or a group - was, in each case, offensive to some of our co-workers," Mr. Buggy wrote. "If this hasn't been clear before, let's make it clear now: Nooses have a harmful impact on others, and they have no place at this site."
In the first incident, a noose was displayed in a site office as an inside joke that anyone entering the work group was "hanging" his career. An investigation determined that there was no intent to offend or harm other employees, Mr. Buggy stated.
Corrective actions were taken after the incident, said Westinghouse spokesman Will Callicott, who would not say what the actions were.
In the second incident, which occurred in October, a worker fashioned a slipknot from the end of a spool of rope in an unmanned storage trailer. After learning of reaction to the knot, the employee acknowledged that it was his handiwork and apologized for offending anyone, Mr. Buggy stated.
The U.S. Department of Energy, which owns the site, reviewed Westinghouse's response and was satisfied with the company's actions, said Rick Ford, a department spokesman at SRS.
The department takes a strong stance against such incidents, Mr. Ford said.
"We certainly don't tolerate that kind of thing, even if there is no intent," he said. "We want to have a workplace completely free of anything that would detract from the work that we need to do here."
But Mr. Hightower said he was bothered by the fact that such an incident occurred twice.
"The fact that it happened again indicates that management did not take a firm position the first time," he said. "It indicates to me that people felt free to vent these kinds of racial feelings without fear of repercussions."
Reach Brandon Haddock at (706) 823-3409.
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