Iowa OSHA has issued $154,524 in fines to TPI Composites for multiple workplace safety violations at its Newton wind blade factory, the result of a five-month investigation sparked by a Des Moines Register special report.
In 40 pages of documents, Iowa’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration alleged an array of safety issues including fire hazards, airborne contaminants, faulty record keeping, fall hazards and a lack of employee training on using personal protective equipment.
Most notably, the citations support the complaints of dozens of former workers who claimed that TPI did not properly protect them from dangerous chemicals that caused them severe skin injuries.
The Register reported on those complaints in its December 2017 investigation that found hundreds of cases of skin injuries resulting from epoxy resin used to fabricate wind blades.
Exposure to the chemicals caused some workers to develop skin sensitization, essentially an allergy developed over time. Some workers say that after they reported the injuries, they were let go.
Six former employees are now suing the company.
Matthew Sahag, the Des Moines attorney representing the workers, said he could not comment on the specifics of the cases.
But he said he was “happy to hear that Iowa OSHA has undertaken efforts to protect all hardworking Iowans at TPI Iowa from workplace dangers.”
Iowa OSHA determined that TPI subjected workers to chemical injuries by failing to provide appropriate personal protective equipment.
TPI has 15 working days to contest the findings of Iowa OSHA’s June 1 citations. Violations must be mitigated by July 19.
In a statement Friday, a TPI executive called safety a “core value” of the company. He said the firm had made numerous safety enhancements in recent years and remained committed to continuous improvement.
“We appreciate OSHA’s time and engagement with TPI Composites as we work towards shared goals relating to workplace safety,” wrote T.J. Castle, TPI’s senior vice president of North American operations.
He said the company is currently evaluating OSHA’s findings.
“While we expect to dispute some of OSHA’s initial findings,” he said, “we will continue to work closely with OSHA to resolve any differences in a manner to ensure the continued safety of our employees.”
OSHA’s two citations contain 43 violations. Fines range from $0 to $8,017 per issue. The total of $154,524 is a large fine for OSHA, but not a record.
“It’s significant, but not anywhere near the highest,” said Iowa Labor Commissioner Michael Mauro, who oversees Iowa OSHA.
How TPI came under the microscope
The Register’s investigation cited injury logs kept by Iowa OSHA that showed more than 300 recorded cases of skin injuries at TPI from the plant’s opening in 2008 through 2016.
The story noted that Iowa OSHA never penalized the company regarding the repeated skin injuries. Agency officials said they had never received a complaint specific to the skin injuries before the story published.
Days after the article published, officials announced a review of OSHA’s actions.
OSHA then received at least one complaint specific to the chemical injuries: TPI employee Timane War said he authorized his attorney to file a complaint with Iowa OSHA in December after the Register’s story published.
The complaint alleged “chemical exposure, skin sensitization and inadequate personal protective equipment” at the plant.
OSHA investigated the company between Dec. 22 and May 17. Officials interviewed employees, inquired about the formal complaint and investigated issues highlighted in the Register’s reporting, Mauro said.
“We took into consideration everything you put into your story as items to go out there and look at,” he said.
TPI’s treatment might have made things worse
In notifying the company, Iowa OSHA Administrator Jens Nissen wrote that TPI-issued Tyvek 400 suits “did not adequately protect employees” from epoxy resin.
Inspectors noted that the resin soaked through the suits, allowing contact with skin and clothes.
And employees were seen using duct tape to prevent the resin from soaking through.
“Employees were exposed to chemical hazards that could result in injury/illness such as dermatitis and chemical sensitization,” the citation read.
OSHA found one employee removing gloves in a way that would further expose him to the epoxy resin. And another wore blue nitrile gloves to transfer resin between totes – but those gloves were not designed to protect against the resin, exposing the worker to the corrosive chemicals.
Iowa OSHA determined that TPI’s medical treatment of chemical reactions on workers’ skin was “inadequate.” An in-house “3-step” treatment issued hydrocortisone cream, Calmoseptine ointment and white petroleum jelly covered with a bandage.
But OSHA determined that the treatment “could exacerbate the occupational contact dermatitis and/or contribute to additional skin sensitization.”
“Employees continued working in the same area with the same chemical exposures after implementing the 3-step process,” the citation reads.
What’s in the citation
The lawsuits and the Register’s reporting focused heavily on skin injuries suffered by TPI employees.
But Iowa OSHA’s investigation has revealed a litany of other alleged safety issues across the factory, raising further questions about the company’s industrial hygiene.
In a 40-page citation issued June 1, Iowa OSHA, fined TPI:
• $8,017 because employees in the company’s finishing department were potentially exposed to dust explosion hazards
• $8,017 because employees in the molding and finishing departments were exposed to unsafe levels of airborne chemicals
• $8,017 because employees in the molding and finishing departments were potentially exposed to fiberglass dust
• $4,811 because drill operators were potentially exposed to combustible dust flash fire and other employees were potentially exposed to slip and trip hazards
• $6,413 because an employee was exposed to fall hazards when cleaning the surface of a wind turbine blade
• $6,413 because maintenance employees were potentially exposed to fall hazards when servicing air filters on top of a 12-foot trim booth
• $4,811 because employees were exposed to airborne dust when grinding on surfaces of the composite wind blades
• $4,811 because employees were exposed to possible fire hazards by using metal cans to soak cloth rags in a flammable mixture
• $4,811 for improperly storing flammable liquids in a chemical storage room
• $4,811 for exposing employees to fire hazards by not ensuring two containers were electrically interconnected while transferring flammable liquids
• $4,811 for not providing proper protective equipment: two finishing department workers were exposed to epoxy resin without the use of an available apron and a molding department worker sprayed a flammable liquid without wearing flame-retardant clothing
• $8,017 because the employer did not select personal protective equipment that protected employees from hazardous chemicals
• $4,811 because finishing department workers were exposed to acetone after wearing improper protective gloves
• $4,811 because workers were exposed to dangerous chemicals by using white liner gloves when working with an adhesive spray; those gloves were not designed to be used with solvents
$4,811 because workers were exposed to corrosive chemicals when dispensing epoxy resin without proper face protection
• $8,017 because workers in the finishing and molding departments were not properly using respirators to protect against vapor air contaminants
• $4,811 because employees were exposed to electrical hazards by not ensuring the effectiveness of lockout and tagout devices for machines
• $8,017 because employees were exposed to crash hazards when moving wind blades with a crane whose synthetic web sling was “not fully intact”
• $8,017 because employees were potentially exposed to rotating saw blades that were not correctly guarded
• $8,017 because employees were potentially exposed to a rotating vertical shaft in the molding department
• $4,811 because employees were exposed to deflagration and fire hazards from a drill enclosure that “was not intrinsically safe”
• $4,811 because the labels for metal drums of resin and hardener were defaced, exposing workers to chemicals without immediate access to health and safety information
• $6,413 because an employee who did not speak English was not provided training in his own language on the health and safety hazards associated with workplace chemicals
• $8,017 because the employer did not provide training to employees on the proper procedures for when epoxy resin comes in contact with personal clothing
• $5,400 for failing to maintain proper records about chemical injuries and the days injured workers were off the job, along with failing to perform a required hazard assessment.