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British firm's sticker ban hits energy workers hard

Decals show US flag, honor 9/11 victims

For the five years he was a metal worker for KeySpan Corp., Dan Feeley covered his hard hat with stickers commemorating prisoners of war and victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. He also had a decal from his union, a few shamrocks, a US flag, and a sticker that read: "Proud to be an American."

Over the last week, a month after the British energy giant National Grid PLC took over KeySpan, managers told Feeley and his colleagues that they must remove all stickers from their hard hats and trucks. If they didn't, the managers told them, they would be suspended.

"I couldn't believe it - it was just unbelievable," said Feeley, 37, who works out of the company's Waltham office. "I could understand it if they were offensive stickers. But an American flag? There's just no good reason for it."

He and others said that a photograph on the back cover of a National Grid pamphlet they received recently from the company shows a British worker wearing a hard hat with stickers on it that include the Union Jack. "It's just a double standard," Feeley said. "That's not right."

Debbie Drew, a spokeswoman for Nation Grid, said the company is merely enforcing a policy to protect workers and to maintain an appropriate appearance.

"It's an effort to ensure personal safety and to present a neat, uniform, and professional appearance to the public," Drew said, adding that the company's hard hats have a small US flag printed beside the company's logo. "Our goal is simply to protect our workers and to have good equipment to keep them safe. . . . Obviously, our employees have concerns, but safety is a number one priority."

The stickers, she said, could disguise cracks or other damage to the hard hats. The company is also concerned that stickers could conduct electricity.

"We try to follow regulatory requirements, as well as manufacturers' specifications," Drew said. "The guidelines seem pretty clear."

Drew added that the company prohibits its employees from putting stickers of the US flag, memorials to dead colleagues, and other decals on company trucks because "our guidelines call for our vehicles to illustrate the company name and safety-related messages for our employees, motorists, and pedestrians."

Workers said KeySpan put stickers of the flag on company trucks after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Dan Fowkes, 47, a 20-year metal worker, said he has refused to remove the flags on his hat and truck. He said he would rather be suspended than remove the sticker.

"I said, 'That's not going to happen,"' he said. "We have people who have been fighting and dying for the American flag. I told them, 'You can send me home, but I'll do what I have to do, and you do what you have to do.' I feel that strongly about it."

He added: "I would understand if it was profane, obscene, or political. But we're talking about the American flag. People are dying for this."

Any stickers allowed in the future, Drew said, would have to be approved by the company and comply with rules that they are at least three-quarters of an inch from the edge of the hard hat. "We'll continue to look at these guidelines as we continue with the integration process," she said.

She declined to comment on whether National Grid - which provides electricity to about 3.4 million customers from New York to New Hampshire and had about 3,000 employees before purchasing KeySpan for $7 billion - would suspend employees who violate the sticker policy.

But workers said they were threatened if they refused to comply. David Demirjian, 45, a metal worker for the past 15 years for KeySpan and its predecessor, Boston Gas Co., said yesterday that a manager gave him the choice of going home or taking a US flag shaped as a clover off his helmet.

He said he ignored the first demand a week ago to remove the sticker, but complied only after his manager told him yesterday that he risked being suspended.

"He told me if I didn't remove it I would be suspended for insubordination," Demirjian said. "I had no choice. I can't afford to be out for two weeks."

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com.

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