Selma, Alabama – US foam manufacturer Renosol is being investigated following allegations its workers are at risk of asthma from TDI exposure at its plant in Selma, Alabama, the United States Department of Labor has confirmed.
The plant’s owner is Tier 1 automotive supplier Lear Corp and it produces foam-based seating for brands including BMW, Ford, General Motors and South Korea’s Hyundai at the wholly-owned Selma plant.
The complaint is the ninth that the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) has officially recorded against Renosol plants since 2004. The latest complaint about Selma was made in May.
It followed allegations of TDI leaks and worker evacuations at the site early in May, 2014. According to an NBC News report, one Selma worker claims the chemical leaks caused her asthma.
Following the news report, OSHA inspected the site. This was carried out alongside a consultant appointed by Lear Corp.
Reports from both inspections will be available in due course.
Speaking exclusively to UTECH-polyurethane.com, Lear Corp’s senior vp communications, facilities and investor relations Mel Stephens, said that in all its facilities “the health and safety of our workers is a top priority.”
He said: “In response to employee concerns related to alleged TDI exposure in the Lear Selma plant, Lear has conducted a comprehensive internal investigation.
“Based on our own internal investigation, two separate independent environmental evaluations, as well as a thorough OSHA evaluation, we have concluded that the environment in the Selma plant is safe for our employees,” added Stephens.
Meanwhile, Bob Ludeuka, executive director at the Polyurethane Foam Association, said: "This is very unusual." The PFA has monitored industrial asthma across the US flexible foam industry for many years and found it to be very, very low.
Stephens continued: “At the Selma facility, we have never had an approved workers' compensation claim for a chemical-related occupational illness.
“Employees have the right to contact OSHA regarding their concerns. We do encourage employees to bring concerns to their supervisor prior to contacting OSHA. In every instance where we are made aware of concerns, we take it seriously and thoroughly investigate the issue and work to resolve the concern as soon as possible,” he added.
This latest investigation follows several at Renosol plants by OSHA over the past decade. In March 2007, following a health-related hazard complaint to OSHA, the organisation logged six violations at the Selma plant and issued fines.
On that occasion, OSHA found four serious contraventions of US safety regulations. Serious contraventions could lead to death or serious physical harm. OSHA proposed fines totalling $37,500, later reduced to $8,375. OSHA said penalty discounts are common when the employer demonstrates good faith by immediately removing the hazard.
According to OSHA data, Renosol in Selma had also contravened standards in 2006. Following a complaint and inspection, OSHA compliance officers logged 12 serious violations and issued fines.
Stephens said allegations of incidents and complaints prior to Lear’s 2007 acquisition of the plant remained the responsibility of its former majority owner Renosol.
Speaking on the latest allegations, Stephens continued: “Lear retained two independent third party consultants to perform sampling and also OSHA performed sampling. Lear's consultant performed sampling on 16 May, 2014. On 28 May, OSHA performed sampling and Lear's consultant performed side by side sampling.
“The findings of both Lear consultants and OSHA confirmed that TDI levels were well below permissible exposure limits,” added Stephens.
Stephens said that after OSHA’s head was quoted in the NBC news report, OSHA asked permission to perform another round of TDI sampling and an independent consultant retained by Lear performed side by side sampling.
Stephens said the results from these tests were not yet available.
“In summary, the company remains committed to operating facilities that provide a safe environment for its employees. We regularly monitor health and safety procedures at all of our facilities. In the case of our Selma plant, we are in the midst of an emotional union organizing campaign. During such campaigns, there are often unsubstantiated allegations made. In this case, we have taken employee allegations seriously, and completed exhaustive testing and evaluation in this facility,” added Stephens.
In 2005, the Renosol’s Farwell plant in Michigan was fined for four serious violations uncovered during inspections in 2004 and 2005. A further four serious violations were logged by compliance officers at Farwell following a complaint-prompted inspection in 2007.
A 2008 planned inspection at Farwell uncovered 10 violations – two of which were classed as serious, while one was a repeat of a previous violation.
Farwell was inspected again in 2012 although records indicate no violations were uncovered and no fines issued before the case was closed in January, 2013.
Inspections were undertaken at Renosol’s Ohio plant, located in Hebron, following complaints in 2011 and 2012 but OSHA records indicate no violations were found.
Meanwhile, a ballot to decide the Selma site’s union status was cancelled in June, 2014. Documents filed with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) by the UAW trade union allege coercive action by Renosol management. The ballot has been postponed.
Stephens said the launch of “intensive union organising campaign” at the Selma facility in April had sparked complaints in the media about the potential for TDI exposure at Selma from a small group of the site’s workforce.
An online petition addressed to Renosol Corporation, Lear Corp and the Hyundai Group is specifically calling on the companies act to “protect the health of workers of Hyundai’s supplier in Selma, Alabama” and has been signed by more than 12,000 people.
In response to the petition’s call for worker health monitoring, Stephens said: “Workers are free to come forward for a medical evaluation if they wish to make a workers compensation claim however, so far, none have done so.”