The state has proposed fining a Baltimore-area copper refinery $5,505 for alleged workplace safety violations in exposing its employees to harmful levels of toxic lead dust and fumes, which union officials say sent one worker to the hospital.
Cox Creek Refining Co., at Fort Smallwood and Kembo roads in northern Anne Arundel County, was cited recently by the Maryland Occupational Safety and Health office for exposing its workers to lead levels that MOSH inspectors found in some parts of the plant were two to nearly 10 times higher than federal safety standards allow.
The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration says workers may not be exposed to airborne lead dust levels higher than 50 micrograms per cubic meter over an eight-hour shift.
But a MOSH inspection last July measured lead dust levels higher than that at four work stations in the plant. A boiler operator in the anode casting area, for instance, was exposed to 483 micrograms of lead per cubic meter, the state citation says.
Cox Creek, which was recently acquired by a Japanese firm after a bitter labor dispute, is due to appear at a hearing next Wednesday at the Maryland Department of Licensing and Regulation to contest the citations and penalties.
Lead, a byproduct of the copper refining process, can cause anemia and can damage kidneys or the nervous system in adults who either inhale or swallow dust or fumes. Research also indicates it can cause high blood pressure, sterility and birth defects. Symptoms of lead poisoning include fatigue, headaches, irritability, twitches, stomach aches and muscle or joint pains.
"I was really tired. . . . I'd go home and just sit," recalled Ed Rossiter, a slime operator, whose blood test last March found he had a lead concentration of 53 micrograms per decileter. By the time he learned of his elevated lead level, Rossiter said, he was becoming nauseated at work.
Elevated lead levels have been discovered since last March in the blood of at least 12 Cox Creek workers, according to medical test results recently furnished by the company to United Electrical Workers Local 125, the union representing the plant's work force.
One of those workers, whose blood lead levels exceeded 60 micrograms per deciliter, was hospitalized last month and remains out of work, according to Peter French, the union's organizer.
Five other workers had abnormally high blood lead levels exceeding 40 micrograms per decileter, according to the company's medical test results. French said those workers should have been reassigned to other parts of the plant until their lead levels came down, but not all were.
The state, in a citation issued last Oct. 18, charges that the company did not perform required medical tests on all workers ** who could be exposed to excessive levels of lead, and that some workers in high-risk jobs who were tested were not informed of the results.
The citation also charges that the company failed to provide workers with adequate protective clothing and equipment, did not keep plant surfaces free of lead dust, and did not adequately warn or train workers about the hazardous chemicals to which they could be exposed, including lead.
In a letter to the state, company officials contend that lead dust levels were high when MOSH inspected last July 31 because the plant was processing metal that day with unusually high levels of lead and other toxic impurities.
Kathleen Pontone, a lawyer for the company, refused last night to discuss the case, except to say, "We're always concerned about the safety of our employees."
Some workers at a union meeting yesterday said that their supervisors recently began requiring them to wear respirators on the job. But they also complained of poor ventilation and excessive dust levels in the plant. They said they had not heard anything about the risks of lead poisoning until after the MOSH inspection.
"The thing that irritates me," French said of company officials, is that "they knew they had high air lead content in July and they did nothing."
But French acknowledged that he and other union officials also were slow to respond, at least until a worker was hospitalized.