TPI Composites has hired a top official from President George W. Bush’s administration in its efforts to fight $154,524 worth of workplace safety fines from Iowa OSHA.
That fight is now primed to last for at least a year.
In June, the Iowa Occupational Safety and Health Administration alleged an array of safety problems at TPI’s wind blade factory in Newton. In a 40-page document, Iowa OSHA detailed issues with fire hazards, airborne contaminants, faulty record keeping, fall hazards and a lack of employee training on using personal protective equipment.
Most notably, the citations supported the complaints of numerous former and current workers who claimed that TPI did not properly protect them from dangerous chemicals that caused them severe skin injuries.
Since then, TPI has contested OSHA’s findings, denying that its workplace conditions were unsafe. To aid in its defense, TPI has hired Ed Foulke, who was appointed by President Bush to oversee the federal OSHA agency in 2005. (Iowa is among 28 states to administer statewide OSHA plans.)
“We are contesting all the findings,” said T.J. Castle, TPI’s senior vice president of North American operations. “From our position, we continue to have pretty strong disagreements with the results of the inspection. But we are working with OSHA to resolve.”
He declined to comment further, but referred to previous TPI statements that identified workplace safety as a top priority. Castle has previously called employees the “greatest and most important part of our organization” and said 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.”
OSHA’s inquiry into TPI Composites came after the Des Moines Register published an investigation in December 2017 that documented skin injuries suffered by workers at the plant.
The investigation found hundreds of cases of 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.
Mauro says TPI’s appeal of its citations will drag on for months: The case is set for a hearing with an administrative law judge on June 10, 2019.
“During this process, the abatement and penalty is placed on hold,” Mauro said. “So we want to get to a resolution as fast as we can because at this time no abatement is being done.”
That means TPI is not required to fix the alleged safety violations as it contests the findings of Iowa OSHA inspectors.
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 actually exacerbate the dermatitis and contribute to further skin sensitization.
In a June 21 meeting, TPI officials went through a list of 43 violations alleged by Iowa regulators, Mauro said. TPI is contesting each claim. Foulke, who was hired as TPI’s counsel in the OSHA case, was present for that meeting with regulators, Mauro said.
Foulke is a partner in the Fisher Phillips law firm, where he chairs the workplace safety and catastrophe management practice group, according to an online profile. The law firm’s website says workplace injury, illness and fatality rates dropped to their lowest levels in recorded history during Foulke’s tenure at OSHA.
The Register’s December 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 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 in June.
“We took into consideration everything you put into your story as items to go out there and look at,” he said at the time.
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