VESTAS USING POTENTIALLY HARMFUL CHEMICALS
October 17, 2010
BY DAVID YOUNG
Records show Windsor plant has been cited for violations.
WINDSOR – The international wind turbine company Vestas Wind Systems is using potentially harmful chemicals in its blades factory here that have injured several workers and in some cases led to employees losing their jobs, according to government records and former employees.
A two-month investigation by the Coloradoan shows that a handful of employees working at the Vestas facility, 11140 Eastman Park Drive, have been injured by an epoxy resin used in the blade manufacturing process.
The company has been aware of the dangers since a 2009 settlement in the United Kingdom involving exposure to the same chemical.
The Windsor plant has also been cited by U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA, for numerous violations related to the chemicals and lack of training that contributed to workers’ injuries.
According to OSHA records and current and former Vestas employees, some employees exposed to epoxy resin have developed the skin allergy dermatitis, an often painful allergy that causes swollen, red and itchy skin.
Some employees allege the company terminated their employment at the plant based on the dermatitis they contracted while working there.
Vestas officials would not speak to specific incidents, only stating that it works with employees who have chemical allergies to mitigate the issues and in some instances those employees might need to find alternative employment.
Former Vestas employee Rusty Estes, 29, of Loveland had worked around epoxy resins while doing vehicle restoration before joining the blades facility in January 2008.
Before going to work on the “join-up” team at Vestas, where Estes was tasked with putting the two halves of a blade together, he had never had any reaction to the material.
However, just a month after working in production at Vestas, Estes developed significant dermatitis on his forearms, according to a November 2009 medical report where a “patch skin test” was planned by Dr. Scott Pace. A year after working at the plant, his body was covered in a painful rash, Estes said.
At least 10 other employees have also been injured by epoxy resins, Estes said.
Dust and fumes from Fiberglas as well as epoxy resins got on his skin despite the protective equipment provided by the company, Estes said. Vestas provides workers with protective clothing, including respirators, and the training on how to properly use it, but he said the equipment was ineffective.
OSHA violations deemed “serious” by the governmental agency confirm that while Vestas provided protective gear, it “did not identify and evaluate the respiratory hazard(s) in the workplace.”
Ken Blehm, a professor of environmental health at CSU and an expert in epoxy resins, said the resin can be inhaled or absorbed through the skin, which is why he recommends limiting all contact with the chemicals by using protective clothing.
Included in the April 29 citation, OSHA wrote Vestas “did not provide a medical evaluation to determine the employee’s ability to use a respirator before the employee was fit tested or required to use the respirator in the workplace.”
The respirators were not inspected before each use and during cleaning, according to the report, and Vestas did not provide training prior to requiring the employees to use respirators in the workplace.
A separate citation noted Vestas did not “provide employees with effective information and training on hazardous chemicals in their work area.”
Those violations have since been abated and the case is now closed, according to OSHA. According to Estes’ worker’s compensation medical records, doctors prescribed a topical agent that did not help with the itching.
During the next year, Estes said the dermatitis progressed to the point that it was “eating his skin away.” Medical records indicate the rash improved when Estes was not working in the facility for a week because of an illness, but the irritation always returned.
After six months of “severe” dermatitis, Estes was reassigned from production to the “webbing area,” according to medical records.
The job reassignment did little to alleviate his rash because the epoxy was in the air, he said.
According to Estes’ medical records, “There is definitely a cause and effect between working at Vestas and developing the contact dermatitis, and having it clear up once he got out of the exposure.”
In March 2010, Vestas fired Estes because of the dermatitis, he said.
“They figured they had no place for me, so they figured they would just get rid of me,” Estes said. “So I was terminated over the dermatitis.”
Since that time, Estes has been unable to find work, in part because of his dermatitis, straining his finances and marriage.
“Vestas pretty much kicked me to the curb, and I am losing everything. It actually hurt my marriage,” Estes said.
Estes pursued legal action but was told there was nothing he could do about the termination considering Colorado is a hire and fire at-will state. He was paid $10,000 in worker’s compensation for his medical bills.
Estes said he has decided to go public with his story in hopes that the injuries at the plant will stop and to empower others who have been injured at the plant by harmful materials.
“It made me pretty upset; they (Vestas) were not willing to work with me or nothing else,” said Estes, who wanted to keep working at the plant despite his injuries. “They caused what happened … I think I was wrongfully terminated, because I think they could have found a place for me.”
Other Vestas employees hurt by the epoxy have fared better than Estes.
Wayne Stolzenberger, a Vestas production assistant, said in an August phone interview that he has been injured by exposure to the epoxy resin at the Windsor plant but was able to keep working.
His reaction to the resin occurred in May, and Stolzenberger said he was reassigned from wood carving and build production to production assistant to mitigate the issue.
Stolzenberger considers himself lucky – the skin irritation cleared up and he has been able to continue working. He said two other workers adversely affected by the epoxy were let go.
Stolzenberger said Vestas told them they lost their jobs because of lack of effort, but he disagrees with what happened.
“Personally, I feel it was handled incorrectly,” Stolzenberger said. “These guys were not allergic prior to working there. They are exposed, and now the company is writing them off and kicking them out the door.”
On Tuesday, Stolzenberger said nothing has changed since August, and he is no longer affected by the epoxy resins.
Another Vestas employee who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution said, like Estes, he was exposed to epoxy resin while working at the Windsor facility between February 2008 and August.
He developed a painful case of dermatitis, causing him to break out in a rash anytime he was working, according to 12 pages of worker compensation forms that detail the employee’s injury in numerous clinical notes from March 19 through Aug. 10. The documents list Vestas Blades America Inc. as the employer, Pinnacol Assurance as the insurer and Dr. Brian Thompson of General Care Medical Clinic as the health-care provider.
The employee had minor outbreaks and treated the rash with a topical steroid cream, according to the documents. In March, the rash spread to the neck and forearms and worsened. By May, the employee was working in a newly constructed paint tunnel where the irritation continued. According to the clinical notes, the Vestas employee was provided protective equipment including a full face mask, but it didn’t fully protect his neck.
During the next few months, the rash appeared to dissipate, however, it recurred and by July 20, the employee had been sent home for two weeks to allow for the rash to clear. Two days after returning to work, the rash flared up again.
At that point, the documents reveal the doctor would not allow him to work at any indoor position at Vestas because of the health and safety risks involved.
The end was swift, according to the employee.
The termination “just completely caught me off guard,” he said. “It was a hell of a blow. There are still repercussions.”
Like Estes, he has been unable to find another job because of his new sensitivity to epoxy resins.
Rather than being let go, the employee said Vestas should have found a position that worked for him, even if that meant transferring him to another one of Vestas’ Colorado facilities such as the new plant in Brighton.
“I don’t think they can do this thing to employees and not have their own repercussions,” he said. “I didn’t bring this upon myself. All I asked for was to be taken care of … I just wanted them to acknowledge this is their fault and here is severance pay.”
Aside from workers’ compensation for his medical bills, he got no compensation for his injuries and opted not to pursue legal action, assuming it would accomplish little.
It is unknown exactly how many other similar incidents occurred at the plant.
Jim McMillen, director of risk management with Pinnacol Assurance, declined to comment directly on how many claims he has received from Vestas, but he said epoxy resin exposure is a fairly common claim throughout the U.S.
In terms of dermatitis, McMillen said anyone regularly handling the material should be using protective equipment to keep the chemical off their skin.
Thompson, with General Care Medical Center, who treated both Estes and the unnamed employee, did not return multiple calls seeking comment.
Vestas officials declined to comment on specific cases at their blades facility in Windsor, in turn, e-mailing a prepared statement.
“Under certain conditions, chemical allergies can occur in manufacturing environments that do not allow some employees to continue working in their positions. In such cases, Vestas works with the employee to determine whether exposure to the cause of the allergy can be mitigated. If mitigation is not possible, we try to locate another open position for which the employee is qualified,” said Andrew Longeteig, Vestas communications specialist, in an e-mail.
“We invest significant resources in hiring, training and retaining our employees. As a result, in the case of an epoxy allergy, we look at many options to retain an employee. We manage these options with the health and safety of the employee first and foremost. In cases where an allergy prevents an employee from performing his or her position, and in which an employee’s condition cannot be reasonably accommodated, an employee may need to find alternative employment.”
Kevin Cory, human resources director at the Windsor blade factory, did not return numerous phone calls and e-mails seeking comment. According to Vestas, the company meets regulatory standards and conducts safety training before employees take their jobs on the factory floor. That training emphasizes proper use of protective equipment and how to safely handle epoxy resin.
Employees who follow proper procedures can avoid skin allergies, according to Longeteig.
Stolzenberger said Vestas does provide protective equipment including full body suits and respirators, but they don’t always work.
OSHA fined Vestas $1,500 and cited the company twice with eight separate violations for failure to train employees how to properly use respirators as well as a failure to complete incident report forms for injuries at the facility.
These violations are directly linked with dermatitis and illnesses recorded at the plant, according to Herb Gibson, area director for the Denver OSHA office.
“I think there were probably dermatitis cases dealing with skin contact with this material,” Gibson said in a voicemail. He said he could not disclose details of injuries and illnesses at Vestas’ Windsor facility.
More than a year ago across the Atlantic, Vestas found itself in a similar situation. In June 2009, the Isle of Wight County Press newspaper in the U.K. reported that Vestas Blades Newport turbine factory, which has since closed, was fined almost $800,000 for health and safety violations pertaining to 13 employees who suffered dermatitis after exposure to epoxy resin between 2005 and 2007.
According to that newspaper’s report, Health and Safety Executive Inspector Roger Upfold said, “Dermatitis is not a trivial condition. Epoxy resins are hazardous substances with well-known ill-health effects.”
Like the Windsor plant, employees at the U.K. plant reported symptoms that included swelling, itching and rashes on the skin, with the effects lasting for days in some cases. As a result, some had to stop working for Vestas Blades UK Ltd, according to the news report.
The employees were injured as a result of improper use of or defective protective equipment, according to the report.
“The company was aware but failed to act properly on the reports of ill-health,” Upfold said in the newspaper.
The term epoxy resin encompasses a wide range of chemicals; everything from materials used to construct a B-2 stealth bomber to a hockey puck.
Depending on the chemicals used, epoxies can be inert and harmless or cause severe long-term injuries including infertility and kidney damage.
It isn’t entirely clear what chemicals are used by Vestas in the construction of its blades, however, medical reports for injured workers along with OSHA citations note: epoxy, resins, hardeners, aerosol, carbon fibers and Fiberglas dust.
The exposure is such that in some cases employees must wear full-body protective suits as well as respirators to ensure there is no contact with the chemicals.
Blehm, the Colorado State University professor, said health risks and dangers involved with the material depends on the chemicals used, but common health risks include dermatitis, dizziness, sleepiness, liver damage, kidney damage, blisters, chemical burns and potential reproductive effects.
While some people might be born with an aversion to epoxies, it is possible to develop a sensitivity to the chemicals over time. And once a person becomes sensitive to an epoxy resin, there is no way to desensitize them, Blehm said.
“To the best of my knowledge, I do not know anyone who is able to reverse a chemical sensitization once they become sensitized,” Blehm said.
In tandem with limiting contact, Blehm said it is important to practice good hygiene and keep protective equipment and work spaces clean.
If a person were to come into contact with an epoxy resin, he said the first measure is to wash the skin as soon as possible.
Depending on the individual, reactions can be fairly mild, such as a minor rash, to something as severe as anaphylactic shock.
Doug Bjorlo, air quality specialist with the Larimer County Department of Health and Environment, said he primarily encounters epoxy resins in the manufacturing sector.
While Bjorlo couldn’t speak to health risks involved with the chemicals, he said it is important to wear protective gear such as goggles, gloves and aprons to protect from skin contact.