Legionnaires-shut plant reopens Poly-Seal workers return to assurances of thorough cleanup


October 15, 1998|By Kristine Henry | Kristine Henry,SUN STAFF

The mantra at Poly-Seal Corp. yesterday was "spick-and-span" as company officials and the state health department reassured returning workers that the plant is safe, even as a new case of Legionnaires' disease was confirmed Tuesday.

Five Poly-Seal employees have contracted the disease, including 51-year-old Joenell Fisher, who died Oct. 1. Another two workers caught pneumonia, which is often the first stage of the disease.

The entire plant in Holabird Business Park in Baltimore had been closed for remediation since Saturday.

"We're really excited about being here today to reopen the plant," said company President William Herdrich. "We have treated every water system in the plant. We've cleaned the systems thoroughly and flushed them with high concentrations of bacteria-killing chemicals. The plant is spick-and-span and it's time to get back to work."

Herdrich estimated the remediation cost about $100,000, but said total expenses associated with cleanup and lost production would not be known for about a week.

The Legionella bacterium, common in water supplies, becomes more potent in stagnant water between 95 and 115 degrees. It can cause illness when the water is transformed into vapor and inhaled. The disease can be treated with antibiotics.

The specific source of the bacteria has not been determined and tests are under way, although all five workers who contracted the disease worked on the east side of the plant. That area has been closed since Oct. 6, when Poly-Seal temporarily laid off about half of its 500 workers.

Diane M. Dwyer, the state health department's director of epidemiology and disease control, was at the plant yesterday to update employees and answer questions.

She said that in addition to the confirmed Legionnaires' cases, 70 employees have complained of respiratory problems and are being monitored. She said it is not known in which part of the plant the 70 employees worked.

Dwyer stressed that it takes two to 10 days to contract Legionnaires' after being exposed to the bacteria and that the fifth case does not represent a new outbreak.

Returning workers, who were greeted with coffee and doughnuts, seemed happy to be back on the job. They also gave company officials good marks for the way they handled the situation.

"They were excellent. They sent memos to workers and held meetings in the cafeteria to update us," said Jackie Heck, a machine operator who's been at the plant 11 years.

Forklift operator George Hawkins, a 14-year Poly-Seal veteran, said chills and a nosebleed prompted him to visit a doctor, but he feels fine now that he's on antibiotics. His only complaint was that he didn't know he could file for unemployment benefits for the days he missed.

Plant workers, who make between $7.50 and $19 an hour, have health insurance through Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Maryland.

Stephen Lightner, president of the United Steelworkers of America Local 6967, said the union and management have a good relationship and he praised the company's actions during the crisis.

The last time the union struck was in 1994, over proposed workweek changes, but that was under a previous union president and before Herdrich ran the company.

"I've worked here 20 years and there's a good group of people on both sides," Lightner said.

The slowdown in production was good news for some of the 40 Poly-Seal workers who had been laid off in August. Twenty-eight were called back to work yesterday to help get the plant up to speed.

Pub Date: 10/15/98

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