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A chemical stench filled the engine room of the tugboat in a sprawling Mississippi shipyard.

Ates scrambled over to an oval hole in the floor and peered into the dark abyss.

Shipyard workers face an injury and illness rate that is roughly 80 percent higher than construction jobs, according to the most recent federal labor figures.

Two of the Navy and Coast Guard’s major private shipbuilders have been cited for cases involving worker deaths.

So while shipyards such as VT Halter are slapped with fines regularly by one arm of the federal government, they are rewarded routinely by another federal agency that pays little attention to companies’ safety records. From 2005 through 2015, a total of 76 workers in the private shipbuilding and repair industry were killed.

At least a quarter of those deaths involved private shipyards that are regular recipients of federal contracts.

The uncomfortable truth is that the Navy has few alternatives when it comes to who builds its ships. S.-based companies in large part because of national security concerns and because shipbuilding provides a large number of relatively high-paying jobs in regions where shipyards are the major employers.