An employee complaint alleging exposure to chemicals and inadequate protective equipment has sparked a new OSHA investigation at TPI Composites, a wind blade manufacturer in Newton.
Iowa Labor Commissioner Michael Mauro said OSHA inspectors have been inside the plant in recent days. The agency, which he oversees, has received at least one OSHA complaint since a Dec. 17 Des Moines Register investigation explored the working conditions at TPI.
The article detailed hundreds of reported chemical injuries at the Iowa plant, which has been much heralded as a model for rebooting American manufacturing.
Six former employees are suing the company, and Occupational Safety and Health Administration logs show more than 300 recorded cases of skin injuries at TPI from the plant's opening in 2008 through 2016.
Iowa OSHA has inspected TPI for other complaints in the past. But records show the agency has never penalized the company regarding the repeated skin injuries. Former workers have blamed the dangerous chemicals used to make wind blades for causing painful, itchy skin outbreaks. Some say the outbreaks have resulted in their termination.
Before the Register's investigation, Iowa OSHA officials said they had never received a complaint specific to the skin injuries. Days after the article published, Mauro announced that his office was reviewing OSHA's actions.
Now, with a specific complaint on hand, Mauro said it could take weeks for OSHA inspectors to thoroughly investigate. He said it was too early to comment on what inspectors have found in the plant.
"All we know is we’ve received a complaint and we're in the process of investigating it. We investigate all complaints," he said. "This particular case is going to take at least a couple months."
Meanwhile, GE executives say their company is keeping an eye on the situation. GE Renewable Energy is the sole customer of TPI's wind blades in Newton, according to company literature online.
"At GE Renewable Energy the safety of our employees, and those who work with our turbines, is of the utmost importance," said Becky Norton, communications leader for the company's onshore wind division. "We are closely monitoring the situation."
TPI officials issued a statement Tuesday to the Register saying safety is the company's "number one core value."
"We work extremely hard to ensure we are always following best practices and creating the safest working environment possible for our employees," the statement read. "We make every effort possible to accommodate any employees whose allergies may prevent them from continued work with or around epoxy resin. Though we are unable to discuss details relating to ongoing litigation, in each of these cases, we have substantive disagreements on the facts. We will continue to offer our full support and cooperation to OSHA during their ongoing inspection.”
TPI employee Timane War said he authorized his attorney to file a complaint to Iowa OSHA in December after publication of the Register's investigation. The complaint alleges "chemical exposure, skin sensitization and inadequate personal protective equipment" at the plant.
In a late December meeting with the Register, War said his entire body itched from chemical exposure. Though he said he was resisting the urge to scratch, he constantly stroked his arms against his chair and rubbed his legs together during the interview.
War said his skin causes him to lose sleep. He must constantly apply lotion for relief. Because heat exacerbates his condition, he said he goes outside even in the dead of winter to quell the itch.
"The itching is all over my body," he said in his native Arabic through a translator.
War, a Sudanese refugee, began working at TPI in January 2015. He said he started experiencing problems in October 2017, which he believes are from the resin used in the manufacturing process.
War said a supervisor initially reassigned him away from the resin, but he was later moved back to work with the chemicals. A TPI nurse diagnosed him with eczema and said his injuries were unrelated to the chemicals in the plant, War told the Register.
He said he has stayed at TPI because other employers in the area cannot match the $18.50 hourly wage he earns at the Newton plant.
War is represented by Des Moines attorney Matthew Sahag, who also represents the six former workers suing the wind blade maker. War has not sued. He is not working as he seeks workers compensation benefits for his injuries.
After months of symptoms, War said he's more concerned about receiving proper medical treatment than keeping his job. But he said many other workers at the plant continue to hide their injuries for fear of retribution.
"They are afraid to speak up because they will lose their jobs," he said through the translator.