Every day, Zarpka “Patience” Green scratches at the constant, gnawing itch that plagues her entire body.
It keeps her up at night. Her skin is so sensitive, she avoids winter coats and layered clothing, she said.
For relief, she showers at least twice a day and regularly slathers up with handfuls of lotion.
The 36-year-old suffers from contact dermatitis, a condition she says she contracted while crawling inside cavernous wind turbine blades to apply a hazardous resin at TPI Composites’ Newton factory.
To make matters worse, Green says TPI fired her because of the illness.
Green is suing TPI for gross negligence, breach of contract and fraud, accusing the company of instituting a “systematic practice of hiring healthy employees and then terminating them from employment after their employees sustained a chemical injury.”
In court filings, TPI has rejected the claims.
She’s not the only one. Five other former employees have filed similar lawsuits, claiming they were fired after being injured by the chemicals at the Newton factory.
In contested unemployment cases involving at least two other workers, administrative law judges have ruled that the company wrongly denied unemployment benefits for workers who suffered skin injuries on the job.
And logs of Iowa’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration show more than 300 recorded cases of skin injuries at TPI from the plant’s opening in 2008 through 2016.
However, records also show that the agency, which enforces workplace safety laws and regulations, has never penalized the company regarding the repeated skin injuries.
TPI Composites, based in Scottsdale, Arizona, calls itself the largest U.S.-based independent manufacturer of wind blades. It recorded net sales of $754.9 million in 2016.
TPI arrived in Newton just after the city’s storied Maytag factory closed in the face of globalization. Town fathers and state and national politicians hailed the 350,000-square-foot factory as an example of renewable energy’s potential for generating jobs and revitalizing American manufacturing.
The first case of dermatitis was recorded before the company celebrated its grand opening, OSHA records show.
Although company leaders have known about the outbreaks for years, former employees say, supervisors continued issuing them paper suits that one workplace safety expert says aren’t intended to protect against the harmful chemicals used to make wind blades.
When contacted by the Des Moines Register, TPI officials declined to comment specifically on the lawsuits or the company’s safety practices.
Employees “are the greatest and most important part of our organization,” said T.J. Castle, senior vice president of North American wind operations. The company does “everything we can to provide them a safe work environment so they are coming to us and returning to their loved ones every day.”
But workplace safety experts question not only TPI’s safety measures, but also the muscle of Iowa OSHA.
“The company’s obviously failing to protect workers,” said Sammy Almashat, a medical doctor and researcher at Public Citizen, a nonprofit, nonpartisan government watchdog group. “And OSHA should have already issued fines to the company for failing to mitigate the hazard.”
Soaked in resin
In lawsuits, interviews and unemployment appeal cases, previous and current workers have alleged a pattern: Through exposure to harmful chemicals, some workers develop skin sensitization, essentially an allergy developed over time. As happens with allergies, some workers are immune. But for some diagnosed employees, their condition has led to a pink slip, they say.
Green, a refugee from Liberia, said she came into contact with harmful chemicals while working in TPI’s molding department.
That department prepares molds for wind blades, rolls fiberglass onto molds and sprays adhesives to keep the various layers of fiberglass together.
As one of her duties, she would crawl into the blades on her hands and knees. At the most narrow point of the blade, she lay on her stomach to apply resin.
She would crawl out of the hot, dark channel soaked in the resin, a product known to cause skin, eye and respiratory irritation.
For protection, Green and other workers wore company-issued gloves, paper masks and paper suits.
But Green said the epoxy resin would leak through the paper suits and stain the clothes she wore underneath. In OSHA logs, TPI recorded several instances of resin soaking through workers’ protective suits.
The biting smells of resin and glue penetrated her paper mask, she said. Only certain workers such as diagnosed asthmatics were issued respirators, she said.
Green’s lawsuit said she was never warned about dangers posed by the substances when she was hired at TPI in 2015. In an interview, she said she was only told that the abundance of fiberglass in the plant could irritate the skin and that workers should immediately remove all their clothes and shower at home after each shift.
When she started at TPI, employees could freely swap out their paper suits when they were soaked or punctured, Green told the Register. But supervisors later informed crews that the company’s costs for personal protective equipment were too high, she said.
The suits were locked up, and workers had to ask permission for new gear. Gloves were reused multiple days.
Green said she complained, but her supervisor often told her that her suits and gloves weren’t dirty enough to be replaced.
‘How do you define a pattern?’
OSHA logs show that TPI’s workers suffered more than 300 dermatitis outbreaks and chemical burns from resin, fiberglass and dust debris during its first nine years in Newton. In responding to Green’s lawsuit, lawyers denied this claim, but provided no explanation for that stance.
According to TPI officials, the plant employs about 1,100 people, with plans to add 351 more as it expands to manufacture bus bodies.
The annual frequency of cases has subsided over the years. In 2009, TPI recorded more than 95 cases of dermatitis from resin soaking through protective suits, improper protective gear and airborne dust, among other causes.
In 2016, the plant recorded five cases of dermatitis and two instances of workers suffering from resin in their eyes.
Iowa OSHA Enforcement Director Jens Nissen said those records don’t necessarily raise red flags.
“Just because something’s on the log doesn’t mean there’s a violation that occurred,” he said. “And obviously things do happen for a whole host of reasons.”
Nissen said he did not want to minimize the workers’ injuries. And he said employers have a responsibility to maintain a safe workplace and to work to prevent injuries and accidents.
OSHA has inspected TPI’s plant and responded to other complaints at the Newton facility with fines and violations, but has found no issues with skin injuries.
In 2015, inspectors visited the plant after receiving complaints about conditions in the wet layup area, the same part of the plant where many workers have reported suffering skin injuries.
While the inspectors did not go out specifically to look at issues like skin injuries or the paper suits worn by employees, Nissen said he believes they would have examined them during their visit.
“There wasn’t anything in terms of a chemical exposure standpoint,” he said. “There was no citation issued, so the inspector must not have found a violative condition.”
Still, on-site inspections represent only a “moment in time,” Nissen said; safe conditions documented one day don’t necessarily speak to the conditions at another time.
While his agency has had TPI’s log of injuries and illnesses in its custody, he said the office is “not necessarily mandated” to respond to the list of skin injuries.
“How do you define a pattern?” he said. “I guess there would be subjectivity involved in that.”
German conglomerate Siemens also produces wind turbine blades in Iowa at a facility in Fort Madison. Between 2009 and August 2013, OSHA logs show Siemens recorded four cases of skin rashes and three cases of eye irritation or resin in workers’ eyes at its Iowa plant.
Nissen said that comparison is “apples to oranges” since it’s difficult to know how the specific chemicals and the manufacturing process might vary between the factories.
He did not want to comment on whether TPI’s chemical issues present a safety problem.
“I really can’t,” he said. “I guess I don’t feel comfortable in saying either way and making a judgment call on that.”
‘It started looking like blisters’
Green’s first outbreak came months after she started working at TPI in May 2015.
Her account is detailed in documents associated with her workers’ compensation claim.
In December, tiny bumps and rashes popped up on her skin. And her face began to itch.
After notifying the company in January 2016, her supervisor initially recommended she apply ointments, creams and bandages to her open wounds.
But things only got worse.
That same month, her eyes began watering and her head ached. As her eyes swelled shut, open wounds were visible on her eyelids. She claims she suffered from menstrual cycle irregularities, and her body was marked by bumps, burns and rashes, some of which are visible in photos provided by her attorney.
“It started looking like blisters,” she said.
On Feb. 1, 2016, TPI sent her to see Dr. Daniel Miller, who owns an occupational medicine firm with offices in Clive and Marshalltown. He directed her to apply a steroid cream to affected areas and stay away from the plant’s resin.
But the doctor’s remedies offered no relief, she said.
The same week, on her own, Green visited a Mercy doctor, who diagnosed her with contact dermatitis. A few days later, on Feb. 9, with her condition unchanged, she returned to see the company’s doctor. He ordered a skin patch test, scheduled a follow-up appointment for 10 days later and directed her to take 1,000 milligrams of Tylenol every six hours.
The doctor told her to go back to work, but she stayed home. She emailed photos of her swollen face to the plant’s human resources department. After seeing her condition, her employer reversed the doctor’s order and advised her to stay home, Green testified in her workers’ compensation case.
A Feb. 22 skin patch test revealed a reaction to epoxy resin. Miller instructed her to permanently avoid resin exposure. TPI fired her the same day.
In court filings, the company’s lawyers have acknowledged that she was let go because of the limitations stemming from her condition. They wrote that “TPI Iowa could not safely accommodate Green’s allergy because epoxy resin is prevalent throughout the TPI facility and thus her employment at TPI Iowa could not continue.”
As the company sought to deny her workers’ compensation claim, it argued she had not suffered a permanent impairment, while an occupational medicine physician hired by her lawyer to perform an independent evaluation on Green concluded she had.
Deputy Workers Compensation Commissioner Heather Palmer found the testimony of Green’s medical witness “more persuasive” than that of TPI’s doctor.
Green received 12 weeks of workers’ compensation payments, $494.87 per week, about 62 percent of her usual $789.51 wages.
“I conclude Green has sustained a permanent impairment,” Palmer wrote in an Oct. 31 decision.
TPI was ordered to pay Green about $11,100 in healing period benefits and $72,375 in permanent partial disability benefits, minus credit for the company’s previous workers’ compensation payments.
In her lawsuit, Green is seeking damages for lost earnings, interest and emotional distress as well as compensation for attorneys fees.
Mary Finn, a West Des Moines industrial hygiene expert hired by Green’s attorney, concluded that the woman’s symptoms were consistent with the potential side effects of the chemicals at TPI. In federally mandated disclosures, the manufacturers of those chemicals warn of possible eye and skin irritation, skin sensitization, asthma and effects on the reproductive system.
Finn concluded that Green contracted her allergy because of insufficient workplace protections.
“Ms. Green was not afforded personal protective equipment and clothing that provided sufficient protection from excessive exposure to chemical substances,” Finn wrote in her risk assessment report.
Rash, then job loss
During his time at TPI, Keith Dunkerson told the Register that he watched as the company tried multiple models of paper suits, looking for something that would better protect against the resin.
“Go inside the blade and within five minutes that resin is sunken through to your jeans,” he said. “I don’t know how many jeans I ruined over the years.”
A former Maytag worker, Dunkerson started at TPI in September of 2008. He had no problems with the chemicals until October 2015, when a rash broke out on his wrists and upper arms.
“Compared to other folks I had a mild case of it,” he said. Dunkerson is not among the six lawsuit plaintiffs.
But Dunkerson said he knew a diagnosis could cost him his paycheck.
Upon a second breakout, Dunkerson was sent to Dr. Miller, who ordered a skin patch test on his back. It revealed an allergy to epoxy resin, he said. TPI fired him within days of receiving the test results. He was just a couple of years shy of his planned retirement, he said.
“They basically said since you’re allergic, you’re not wanted here,” Dunkerson said. “They let other people transfer and not me.”
Dunkerson said TPI initially tried to reject his workers’ compensation claim. But after hiring a lawyer, he reached a settlement.
‘It kind of depended on who you were’
In testimony during Green’s workers’ compensation case, Ryan Hoenicke, the environmental and health safety manager at TPI’s Newton plant, said turnover among first-year employees reaches as high as 95 percent. He said some of that was due to issues with dermatitis.
He also testified, according to a transcript: “I’ve never looked at the OSHA logs.”
In Green’s workers’ compensation case, her attorney, Matthew Sahag, argued that TPI has employed an uneven response to employees who develop reactions to the chemicals used in its manufacturing process. Sahag declined to be interviewed.
Some workers are fired for the issue, documents show, while others in interviews reported being reassigned to different parts of the plant.
In testimony during Green’s workers’ compensation case, TPI’s safety manager said that resin was present all throughout the facility, including in the break rooms and the air ducts, making it difficult to accommodate those with sensitivity.
But Donna Brown, a former TPI employee from Newton, said TPI did move her.
She started experiencing symptoms about two or three months into her time at TPI.
“My face would break out. My eye would swell completely shut,” she said. “There was at least one time I couldn’t go to work because my eye was shut.”
Brown, who is not among the lawsuit plaintiffs, described a nightmare of ongoing symptoms that spilled over into her personal life.
“You spent all weekend just trying to get it to go away,” she said. “Then you’d go back Monday and start swelling up again.”
Supervisors moved her to work in the warehouse, away from the chemicals. She has since voluntarily left TPI for other employment, she said.
Brown is unsure why she was allowed to stay on while others who experienced symptoms were let go.
“I think it kind of depended on who you were and what kind of a worker you were,” she said.
‘That really should not be happening’
TPI’s process of producing wind blades requires massive quantities of hazardous chemicals.
One such product is a resin called EPIKOTE, according to inventories submitted to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. TPI keeps up to 635,000 pounds of EPIKOTE resins on hand each day, according to its chemical inventory.
The Ohio manufacturer of the chemical warns that contact with it may cause organ damage, cancer, respiratory tract irritation, reproductive effects, skin irritation and pain and irritation of the eyes.
The first page of an eight-page safety document states that the resin “may cause sensitization by skin contact.”
Sensitization is a common concern among manufacturers, particularly those who work with fiberglass products, said T. Renee Anthony, environmental engineer and industrial hygienist in the University of Iowa’s College of Public Health.
Many factories use known sensitizers safely, said Anthony, who formerly worked as an industrial health and safety manager.
Sensitizers affect different people differently. But once sensitization develops, the victim must avoid contact to avoid symptoms, she said.
“If the chemical has this known health outcome,” she said, “they’ve got to protect workers from it.”
She has no direct knowledge of the conditions at TPI. But after reviewing an inventory of the chemicals used at TPI, she believes workers are issued inadequate gear. OSHA logs show workers recorded dermatitis on their arms, eyes, faces, necks, stomachs, backs, knees, ankles, thighs, chests and hips. Some suffered head-to-toe breakouts, the records show.
“They don’t have people in the right personal protective equipment,” she said. “Getting all over their body; that really should not be happening.”
Anthony said factories must choose personal protective equipment specifically rated to protect workers from each chemical being handled, which she described as a straightforward task: Suppliers include charts and online sorting tools to ensure that the right gear is matched against the chemicals in the workplace.
Industrial supplier DuPont’s website allows employers do this with a few clicks. Anthony pointed to isocyanates, compounds found in polyurethanes, which show up on TPI’s chemical inventories. OSHA says isocyanates include potential carcinogens and can cause lung problems, as well as irritation of the eyes, nose, throat and skin.
To protect against this family of chemicals, the DuPont tool recommends a nonwoven coverall, heavy-duty protection that resembles rubber or plastic, not less expensive paper.
“That’s DuPont telling you directly,” Anthony said.
‘A new day and a hopeful day’ in Newton’
TPI came to Newton at exactly the right time.
In 2007, the Jasper County seat lost its Maytag factory and corporate headquarters after the storied Iowa brand was purchased by rival Whirlpool. The results were a textbook lesson on the sometimes painful effects of globalization and corporate mergers and acquisitions.
Maytag once employed as many as 4,000 people in Newton. When the plant closed, some 1,800 workers, who earned $19 per hour on average, were put out of work. The loss rippled through the community of 15,000 people.
During a gathering at the American Legion Post 111 after the plant closed, out-of-work employees commiserated about their futures over cold beers. Some took turns bashing an old Whirlpool dryer with sledgehammers.
Months before Maytag’s production lines came to a halt, Rhode Island-based TPI announced it was considering Newton as one of three potential domestic sites for a new $56 million factory. The largest U.S.-based independent maker of wind blades planned a new plant to pump out 150-foot long, 20,000-pound blades for use on General Electric turbines.
Local officials saw the wind blade manufacturer, combined with other projects like the Iowa Speedway, as a way to transition Newton from a company town to one with a more diverse, stable economy.
Then-Gov. Chet Culver, a Democrat, proclaimed a “new day and a hopeful day” for Newton at a Nov. 26, 2007, ceremony announcing TPI’s decision to open shop there. Former Sen. Tom Harkin, also a Democrat, praised the future plant as a model for how a growing renewable energy sector could reboot American manufacturing.
While beleaguered Newton celebrated the news, TPI announced average worker wages of $13.40 per hour, almost $6 less than the average pay at the unionized Maytag plant.
For its decision to locate in Newton, TPI was awarded millions in incentives by the Iowa Economic Development Authority. Agency records show the company received $2 million in forgivable loans, $1 million for employee training and $2.4 million in tax credits. Newton and Jasper County offered a combined $600,000 in grants to TPI.
The plant officially opened in September 2008.
In the years that followed, elected officials from both parties used TPI’s plant and products as the backdrop for politicking.
Republican presidential candidates at the 2011 Iowa Straw Poll in Ames each autographed a blade that was on display. Then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry, now the U.S. Secretary of Energy, toured the plant later that year and held a town hall with employees.
U.S. Sen Chuck Grassley held a campaign event at the plant last year, and former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad invited TPI’s general manager to the Iowa Capitol in March of this year to champion renewable energy tax credits.
On May 24, 2012, during President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign, he gave a speech at the factory urging Congress to renew tax credits for companies working in the renewable energy sector. Obama was introduced by a former Maytag worker who was among the first to be hired by TPI in Newton – leaning into the city’s turnaround narrative. The president stood flanked by massive blades featuring the company’s blue, white and yellow logo.
What is sensitization?
Chemicals may cause a sensitization effect, in which an individual becomes unusually susceptible to a chemical or group of chemicals.
From then on, exposure to even small amounts of the substance can cause an allergic reaction. The only way to deal with sensitization is to prevent any further exposure or contact with the chemical. Sensitization effects include allergic contact dermatitis and airway sensitization.
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