As TPI faces allegations over its handling of worker safety issues, local legislators say they’re looking into the problem, but others in the community are unwilling to comment.
TPI Composites, the wind turbine blade manufacturer, was heralded a savior when it first arrived in Newton on the heels of Maytag’s closure, but an investigative report by the Des Moines Register has revealed there may be serious safety issues at the facility. Several former employees are suing TPI, alleging they were fired after their injuries made it impossible to keep working at the plant.
The Register has identified hundreds of documented chemical injuries at the plant, logs from the state’s office of Occupational Health and Safety Administration has documented more than 300 cases of skin injuries between 2008, when the plant opened and 2016.
In lawsuits workers claim the safety equipment provided at TPI was insufficient, and often, the resin used to coat the blades soaked through protective safety gear, leaving them with contact dermatitis issues, including swelling of the eyes and open wounds that looked like blisters.
During a workers’ compensation case Ryan Hoenicke, the environmental and health safety manager at TPI’s Newton facility said issues with dermatitis were the cause of some turnover in first-year employees, which is as high as 95 percent. According to the Register, Hoenicke testified he’s never looked at the OSHA logs.
Local legislators said they’re concerned about issues at TPI and plan to investigate further.
“One of the top priorities of state and federal governments is to protect the health of every Iowa worker,” Sen. Chaz Allen, D-Newton, said in a statement, released to the Newton Daily News on Tuesday. “Like many Iowans, I was concerned about the information reported in the Des Moines Register about TPI and several of its employees. I’ve reached out to several current and former employees as well as TPI’s management to better understand what has happened in the past and what is happening currently.”
Allen said he plans to stay on top of the issue, and he’s scheduled a meeting with Labor Commissioner Michael Mauro this week to learn more about the issues documented in the Register. Rep. Wes Breckenridge, D-Newton, echoed Allen’s concerns and said he plans to reach out to TPI and workers who may have been affected to learn more about the issue.
“Any time you’re talking about employee safety, I’m always concerned,” Breckenridge said. “We want companies and businesses to have safe work practices, we need to look into this and make sure they’re following safety procedures.”
When TPI arrived in Newton in 2008, it came on the heels of Maytag’s departure. State and local lawmakers heralded the arrival of the company, with Chaz Allen, Newton’s mayor at the time, praising TPI for its decision to set up shop in Newton.
“This is a good day for Newton, it’s a good day for this area, the employees and the community,” Allen said.
Starting off with 500 employees in Jasper County, TPI’s ranks have swollen to more than 2,000 employees, and the company recently announced a deal to begin the manufacture of bus bodies, which will require the company to hire 350 new workers. The project was incentivized by a $1 million award from the Iowa Economic Development Authority and will provide direct financial assistance and tax benefits for the expansion. The project, which has a capital investment of $6 million, is scheduled to begin production during the first half of 2018.
In November Frank Liebl, the executive director of the Newton Development Corporation, an organization tasked with bringing business into the community called the expansion “a real positive thing.” On Tuesday, Liebl declined to comment when reached by the Newton Daily News.
“I don’t want to say anything right now because I don’t know enough about it,” Liebl said.
The recent expansion isn’t the first time TPI has received economic incentives from the state of Iowa. When TPI came to town many in Newton were reeling from the loss of Maytag, and the town was looking for a stable, more diversified solution. City officials hoped that instead of putting their eggs in one basket they’d be able to rebrand the city as a leader at the forefront of the renewable energy business. To bring TPI in, the Iowa Economic Development Authority gave TPI $2 million in forgivable loans, $1 million for employee training and $2.4 million in tax credits, with Newton and Jasper County chipping in an additional $600,000. Yet, starting wages were lower at TPI, a nonunion facility, than Maytag, a union shop, with an average wage at TPI of $13.40 an hour, compared to an average of $19 an hour at Maytag.
At a press conference Tuesday, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds said she’s asked Mauro to investigate the issue, and said workplace safety is an issue she takes very seriously. Reynolds gave Mauro a vote of confidence and said she’s confident his office will take the necessary measure to investigate the issue.
“I know the commissioner is looking into that and will take what appropriate actions need to be taken,” Reynolds said. “He’s working on that right now, and I have a lot of confidence in the commissioner to make sure that Iowa workers are working in safe environments,” Reynolds said.
TPI did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.
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