Lehigh workers sickened by fumes

June 17, 1994|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,Sun Staff Writer

For the fourth time in two years, employees at the Lehigh Portland Cement Company plant in Union Bridge were taken to the hospital yesterday after being sickened by fumes from a tank of waste oil.

The workers -- Bonnie Biggus, Brenda Burdett and James E. Harris -- reported experiencing headaches and difficulty in breathing. Ms. Biggus and Ms. Burdett were stricken as they worked.

Mr. Harris, the assistant chief of the Union Bridge fire unit, came into contact with the fumes after he left his work area at Lehigh and joined engines that had been dispatched to the plant to deal with the emergency, according to New Windsor Fire Chief Ronnie Blacksten.

After being taken by ambulance to Carroll County General Hospital, all three were treated and released in the afternoon.

Plant manager David H. Roush said the fumes escaped from a mixing tank through hatches that had mistakenly been left open. Mr. Roush said the plant would stop burning oil pending an investigation of the incident.

Speaking to reporters yesterday, Mr. Roush characterized Lehigh's decision to call in the fire department and ambulances as "a precautionary matter."

The plant manager also stressed that the escaped fumes should not be classified as hazardous materials because several other, "less sensitive" employees had been exposed to them without becoming ill.

Mr. Roush would not detail the contents of the waste oil, but he said the mixture in the tanks -- which could include anything from printer's ink to used crankcase oil -- is nonhazardous and is analyzed before and after burning.

Maryland does not consider waste oil to be a hazardous material, according to a spokesman for the state Department of the Environment.

Workers interviewed at the plant said yesterday's incident could become a topic of discussion during already tense contract negotiations between the plant's management and its unionized employees. As part of public protests against Lehigh, workers have accused plant officials of failing to take adequate measures to ensure employee safety.

Ms. Biggus and Mr. Harris, in fact, have been critical in the past of Lehigh's health and safety measures.

As president of the union representing about 150 of the plant's employees, Mr. Harris, a Union Bridge resident who works in the plant's electrical department, has made working conditions at vTC the cement company a key issue in a 2 1/2 -year battle with Lehigh management over a contract.

And in an interview with The Sun earlier this year, Ms. Biggus, a process attendant at the plant, alleged that officials at Lehigh "don't . . . care a lot about our health."

But Mr. Roush and Jeffry H. Brozyna, vice president and general counsel for Lehigh at its corporate headquarters in Allentown, Pa., said all the incidents at the plant have been minor, with employees taken to the hospital being treated and released the same day.

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