Lead and Workers Don't Mix

March 29, 1991

It is important, as Maryland seeks to move from the smokestack industries of the past to the high-tech future, to remember that there is still life in some of the old smokestacks. Cox Creek Refining Co., in northern Anne Arundel County, had its share of difficulties before being bought by a Japanese company, but is thus far one of the survivors.

Now the Maryland Occupational Safety and Health office has cited Cox Creek for abnormally high levels of lead dust, a byproduct of its copper refining process. Federal safety standards say workers may not be exposed to lead dust concentrations greater than 50 micrograms per cubic meter during an eight-hour shift, but Maryland authorities say they measured concentrations two to ten times greater during one shift in July. Such high concentrations, breathed in by workers, can cause anemia, damage kidneys or the nervous system and cause high blood pressure, birth defects, even sterility.

The company says it isn't so, that the safety inspectors merely arrived on a day when metal with an unusually high level of lead and other impurities moved through the refining process. Even if that turns out to be the literal truth, it cannot excuse the exposure of plant workers to the dangerous byproducts. Proper ventilation, protective clothing and close medical checking of workers' lead levels cannot depend on what day the inspectors check. Reducing workers' exposure to hazardous materials reduces claims for compensation and boosts good labor relations.

That lesson is one the foreign owners of Cox Creek should have learned. The future of copper refining in plants like Cox Creek cannot be secured by cutting corners on safety.

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