Barrel company facing fine for exposing workers to hazardous chemicals, unsafe practices
Raquel Rutledge , Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Published 7:01 p.m. CT April 21, 2017 | Updated 9:37 a.m. CT April 22, 2017
The Journal Sentinel findings are based on 16 hours of audio recordings of managers and workers inside the plants; hundreds of pages of documents, including safety audits from private consultants, injury reports, federal and state regulatory records,
(Photo: Will Kramer, former safety consultant to Greif Inc.)
An industrial drum refurbisher on Milwaukee’s north side faces $108,000 in federal fines stemming from serious safety violations that harm workers — and pose risks to the neighborhood.
The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration has cited the Mid-America Steel Drum facility for 15 serious violations for exposing workers to chemical and heat-related burns, toxic gases, dangerous noise levels, the risk of falls and other hazards.
The “mixing of reactive materials/chemicals, as well as the mixing/addition of chemical unknowns, exposed employees to reactive chemical hazards," according to a citation and notification of penalty issued last week by OSHA.
The company, on Cornell St. near W. Hampton Ave. and N. 24th St., recycles and reconditions industrial totes and is among a group of similar facilities operated by a joint venture called Container Life Cycle Management — or “Click’m.” CLCM facilities employ about 270 people, with additional operations in St. Francis and Oak Creek as well as Indianapolis, Memphis, Tenn., and Arkadelphia, Ark.
CLCM is majority owned by industrial packaging giant Greif Inc., headquartered in Delaware, Ohio.
Officials from Greif said Friday they are “cooperating closely” with OSHA regulators.
“We are aware of OSHA’s findings and while we do not agree with the results of the inquiry, we’re committed to addressing issues in a timely manner,” a spokesman for Greif said in a written statement to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
A Journal Sentinel investigation into Greif’s CLCM facilities published in February detailed how unsafe practices at the plants resulted in worker injuries and risks to the environment. Workers told the Journal Sentinel the drums that arrive at the plant for refurbishing and recycling are not always empty — violating regulations — and instead contain chemicals, including hazardous ones, sloshing in the bottom. Workers pour the various chemical residues into a container without knowing what they’re mixing and how the chemicals might react.
Workers say totes sometimes arrive at the plant with hazardous chemicals left sloshing in the bottom. (Photo: Will Kramer, former safety consultant to Greif Inc.)
The practice results in drums exploding and releasing toxic gases and vapors in the air. Workers have suffered severe chemical burns and respiratory illness, according to interviews and internal company records. In a 1984 case, before Greif/CLCM were involved with the business, a drum at a sister plant owned by Mid-America exploded in the face of a 23-year-old worker and killed him.
The Journal Sentinel's findings were based on 16 hours of audio recordings and hundreds of pages of injury reports and safety audits supplied by a whistle-blower; as well as federal, state and local regulatory records; photographs; medical examiner reports; police and fire records; U.S. Securities and Exchange reports; lawsuits; and interviews with eight recent workers from three plants, regulators, trade groups and chemical safety experts.
The OSHA citation substantiates the Journal Sentinel’s findings.
It notes, in part: “the employer receives, stores, and processes chemical containers (totes) that contain chemicals such as, but not limited to: hydrogen peroxide, isopropanol, sodium hydroxide, sodium hypochlorite, acetone, sulfuric acid, hydrochloric acid, and paints."
In addition, workers at the north side Milwaukee plant were exposed to fire dangers from acetone, which wasn’t properly handled, the OSHA citation states. Workers were not adequately informed about the risks of each of the hundreds of chemicals they were handling, the agency's inspectors found.
Workers were allowed to go back into the plant without “procedures in place to ensure that the work environment was safe following the release of unknown gases and vapors from unwanted chemical reactions," inspectors noted.
Will Kramer, a former risk assessment consultant who blew the whistle on Greif, said OSHA’s penalties illustrate a regulatory failure. The $108,000 fine amounts to “pocket change,” he said. Greif reported net sales of $3.3 billion in 2016.
Kramer said OSHA investigators didn’t contact him or seek evidence that the company was aware of its dangerous practices and deliberately ignored them. OSHA officials could not be reached for comment.
“In my role as a safety consultant to the company, we documented the same issues OSHA cited them for, and provided a detailed report with photos to the company's management with recommendations of how to fix the problems,” Kramer wrote in a letter Friday to U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, who has called for multiple federal investigations into the problems with the Greif/CLCM plants.
Such evidence would have allowed the agency to classify the violations as “willful,” which carry much stiffer fines. Kramer said that might do more to “incentivize” the company to improve its practices.
OSHA conducted several inspections of the plant beginning in October 2016, after receiving a complaint from an employee. The inspections continued through April 6. The company has until May 30 to finish resolving all of the issues.
"This confirms that despite (Greif officials) saying they fixed all the problems, they’re still doing the same things," Kramer said.
Read the investigation
To read the Journal Sentinel's "Burned" investigation, into problems at drum reconditioning plants, go to jsonline.com/burned.