May 21, 2024

Local leaders react to OSHA fines against TPI

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With TPI Composites in Newton facing a nearly $155,000 fine for multiple workplace safety violations, local lawmakers say they believe the wind turbine manufacturer is committed to improving safety at the facility.

After media reports surfaced last year documenting more than 300 cases of skin injuries between 2008 when the plant opened in 2016, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds promised a full investigation, led by Labor Commissioner Michael Mauro. The state’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration released the results of that investigation last week, levying fines of nearly $155,000 for violations including fire hazards, airborne contaminants, faulty record keeping, fall hazards and a lack of employee training.

The OSHA reports support complaints from dozens of former workers who say TPI didn’t properly protect them from dangerous chemicals that caused them severe skin injuries.

TPI is one of Newton’s largest employers, with approximately 1,100 workers, and is preparing to add a bus body division to supply California-based Proterra with up to 3,350 bus bodies over a five-year period. The company says the bus body work will add another 350 jobs.

When TPI arrived in Newton in 2008, state and local lawmakers heralded the arrival of the company, with then-Newton Mayor Chaz Allen 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.

Now a state senator representing western Jasper and eastern Polk Counties and the director of the Jasper County Economic Development Corporation, Allen declined the Newton Daily New’s request for an interview regarding the fines OSHA issued against TPI, but he offered a brief statement.

“The recently completed investigation by Iowa OSHA confirmed that there were many health and safety violations. Understanding the need for due process, it is the duty of TPI officials to correct any problems to ensure the safety of all workers and to pay appropriate penalties,” Allen wrote in an email to the NDN.

In his statement, Allen said he would continue to monitor the situation as it unfolds.

“I will continue to keep a close eye on this situation because the State of Iowa has a responsibility to protect employees in their workplaces,” Allen wrote.

Frank Liebl, the executive director of the Newton Development Corporation, said he doesn’t have any concerns about workplace safety at TPI despite OSHA’s findings. In an interview Thursday, Liebl said he’s convinced the wind blade manufacturer has taken steps to improve safety at the facility.

“After they’ve made these changes, I’m sure everything is OK,” Liebl said. “I don’t have any concerns because they’re going through this situation with OSHA, and the fines were handed down and hopefully everything will be OK going forward.”

TPI representatives said they plan to dispute some of the claims made in the OSHA documents. In a statement released last week, T.J. Castle, TPI’s senior vice president of North American operations, said safety remains a “core value” at the company. Castle said TPI has made numerous safety improvements over the years and is focused on continued improvement.

“We appreciate OSHA’s time and engagement with TPI Composites as we work towards shared goals relating to workplace safety,” Castle wrote. “While we expect to dispute some of OSHA’s initial findings, we will continue to work closely with OSHA to resolve any differences in a manner to ensure the continued safety of our employees.”

In lawsuits filed against TPI, workers claim the safety equipment provided by the wind blade manufacturer 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.

Epikote, the resin used to bond the blade halves together, can cause organ damage, cancer, respiratory tract irritation, reproductive effects, skin irritation and pain and irritation of the eyes after prolonged exposure.

During their inspection, documents show OSHA found lax safety regulations in place, fining the company $8,017 for employees who were exposed to concentrations of airborne m-Xylene-alpha,alpha’diamine, at approximately six times the recommended exposure level.

Inspectors also documented multiple instances of injuries sustained by workers at the plant in 2018 which were not documented in accordance with state regulations. On Jan. 23, 2018 a worker at the plant came into contact with chemicals that resulted in allergic dermatitis, which was not recorded within the seven days required by state law. OSHA inspectors documented two other instances where accidents were not reported in a timely manner on Jan. 26 and 29 of this year.

The citation and notification of penalty from OSHA was issued June 1, and TPI has until Friday — 15 working days — to challenge the agency’s claims.

In 2012, employees at the plant tried to unionize, citing health concerns as a top priority. Ultimately, employees at TPI decided not to join with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, (IBEW) Local 347.

Contact David Dolmage at 641-792-3121 ext. 6532 or ddolmage@newtondailynews.com