Reports of dust-covered workers and other hazards at a U.S. Minerals plant in Illinois have led federal authorities to propose a $466,400 fine against the company and initiate inspections at its three other sites.
The company is fiercely disputing the allegations.
U.S. Minerals called the allegations by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration “incomplete, overstated and/or inaccurate.” The company “has already begun the legal process to protect its rights in contesting the alleged violations, penalties and abatement dates cited by OSHA.”
OSHA announced Thursday (Sept. 9) that it was issuing 35 health and safety citations against the company, based in Dyer, IN. U.S. Minerals LLC manufactures abrasive blasting and roofing materials from slag produced at coal-fired power plants.
‘Billowed Clouds of Dust’
The citations relate to operations at the company’s plant in Baldwin, IL— an “antiquated and poorly maintained facility” that “billowed clouds of dust that were noted by and affected residents as far as two miles away,” OSHA said.
“U.S. Minerals has severely jeopardized the health of its workers by exposing them to extremely high levels of dust containing silica,” said Dr. David Michaels, the OSHA administrator. “Even with employees covered head to toe in dust, the company still failed to provide breathing protection and other controls.”
U.S. Minerals sharply disputed that assessment, saying that air-monitoring testing “by an independent and accredited air sampling professional demonstrated that the levels of respirable dust at the facility were well within OSHA’s permissible exposure limits”—results that it submitted to OSHA’s area director, the company said.
Nevertheless, OSHA says its findings at the Baldwin facility have prompted the agency to launch inspections at U.S. Minerals’ other sites in Illinois, Louisiana and Texas.
The overexposure citations addressed exposures to “total dust” generated from the slag production process, said OSHA spokesman Scott Allen.
“Employees were exposed to the respiratory hazards associated with processing coal slag, which contained silica and pneumoconiosis-producing dusts,” according to OSHA’s 35-page citation document.
Several employees were exposed to double or triple the permissible exposure limit for total dust, yet the employer did not mandate the use of respiratory protection, the citation said.
The company disagreed, saying in a statement: “[E]ven though the air sampling shows that U.S. Minerals employees are not exposed to unsafe levels of airborne dust, U.S. Minerals offers its employees respirators if they choose to use them. Notably, U.S. Minerals is aware of no injuries or illnesses sustained by its employees that can be attributed to dust exposure.”
OSHA issued U.S. Minerals 10 willful citations with proposed fines of $392,000 for allegedly:
• Exposing workers to levels of hazardous dust at concentrations higher than the permissible exposure limit;
• Failing to implement a written respiratory protection program or to provide respirators to employees; and
• Failing to implement engineering controls to reduce harmful dust exposures.
OSHA defines a willful violation as “one committed with intentional, knowing or voluntary disregard for the law’s requirement, or plain indifference to employee safety and health.”
“U.S. Minerals has demonstrated a blatant disregard for the safety and welfare of its workers,” said OSHA Area Director Nick Walters. “That is not acceptable, and we are committed to seeing that the workers at this facility are provided a safe and healthy workplace.”
The company also has been issued 15 serious citations with proposed penalties totaling $37,600. Violations are alleged to include:
• Failure to assess the need for adequate personal protective equipment;
• Inadequate eye protection;
• Unsanitary washing facilities;
• Failure to develop procedures and practices for permit-required confined-space entry;
• Lack of a written hazard communication program; and
• Inadequate information and training on dust containing silica.
An OSHA violation is considered serious “if death or serious physical harm could result from a hazard an employer knew, or should have known, exists. “
The company also received six repeat citations with fines of $34,400 for allegedly violating permit-required confined-space entry rules and failure to maintain a clean and orderly workplace.
OSHA issues repeat citations if an employer was previously cited for the same (or similar) violation of any standard, regulation, rule or order at any other facility within the last three years. In this case, OSHA noted similar citations leveled against the company in November 2007.
U.S. Minerals also received four other-than-serious citations with $2,400 in penalties for alleged lack of proper injury and illness recordkeeping.
As a result of the inspection in Baldwin, IL, OSHA says it has opened inspections of U.S. Minerals’ facilities in Coffeen, IL; Harvey, LA; and Galveston, TX. All three facilities have processes similar to those of the facility in Baldwin, IL, and all produce similar end products, Allen said.
Inhalation of the material produced at the Baldwin facility can cause debilitating lung disease such as pneumoconiosis, OSHA said. The disease is characterized by chronic cough, difficulty breathing, shortness of breath, and similar symptoms.
The company has 15 business days from receipt of its citations and penalties to comply, request an informal conference, or contest the findings before the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.
The company said: “U.S. Minerals remains committed to providing its employees a safe and healthy workplace, and it looks forward to working with OSHA to reach a prompt and agreeable resolution of this matter.”