Lead battery recycling firm Gopher Resource has been accused of failing to prevent its workers from being exposed to “lead inhalation hazards”, a US federal workplace safety investigation found.
Despite warnings since March 2020 of unsafe measures of lead exposure, the firm failed to make changes required by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) at its Tampa, Florida, battery recycling facility and smelter.
The company also failed to provide up to 300 employees with adequate respirators that could have kept worker exposure to hazardous substances at or below the allowable level, states OSHA.
Gopher Resource is a secondary lead smelter, recycling automotive batteries by separating the battery components to capture lead, acid and plastic, before processing those materials.
OSHA area director Danelle Jindra in Tampa, said: “This employer put their bottom line above the safety and well-being of their workers.
“Every worker has the right to a safe workplace, and they should never have to decide between their own health and earning a living. Continuing to put workers in harm’s way is unacceptable, and OSHA will continue to hold employers like Gopher Resource responsible.”
OSHA cited Envirofocus Technologies— operating as Gopher Resource— proposed penalties totalling $319,876.
OSHA also cited Gopher Resource for:
- Allowing cadmium, lead and inorganic arsenic exposure levels above the permissible exposure limit.
- Not implementing adequate engineering and work practice controls to prevent lead and inorganic arsenic exposure levels above the permissible exposure limit.
- Failing to provide an annual update of the written compliance program for cadmium, inorganic lead and arsenic.
- Allowing workers to share aluminized jackets that were damaged and stored in the open, and exposed to lead.
- Requiring workers to wear respirators that were not fit-tested annually.
- Using shoveling, sweeping or brushing methods to remove lead accumulations.
- Not identifying all hazards on entry permits.
OSHA also cited A&B Maintenance & Construction, a Tampa-based company that provides supplemental maintenance at the Gopher facility, for exposing workers to health hazards by failing to maintain a written respiratory protection program and allowing lead exposure in excess of the permissible exposure limit.
A&B Maintenance & Construction faces $16,384 in penalties.
The companies have 15 business days from receipt of their citations and penalties to comply, request an informal conference with OSHA’s area director, or contest the findings before the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.
Gopher Resource acquired the Tampa facility in 2006 and since has kept an estimated 75+ million lead batteries out of landfills.
Since the acquisition, Gopher has invested more than $230 million into the facility, of which $140 million was focused on protecting the health and safety of employees and environmental protection.
The 21-acre site has the capacity to recycle 50,000 automotive batteries per day (13 million annually) to produce recycled pure lead and numerous specialty alloys.
The company’s website says it invests 25% of its operating budget to health, safety and environmental stewardship.
A Gopher statement to BEST read: “Gopher Resource is deeply committed to protecting our people, our community, and the environment.
“We have spent most of this year working cooperatively with OSHA to review our entire Tampa operation and to identify areas where historical practices could be improved.
“We have only just received OSHA’s report, and we are still reviewing it in detail, but as part of our continuous focus on protecting people and communities we have already implemented the majority of OSHA’s recommendations. Other recommendations that require further study have been given the highest priority.
“We would like to thank our employees and management for their steadfast commitment to continuously improving safety and operations.
“Although the OSHA investigation of our facility is now closed, we continue to work with OSHA regarding their determinations. Notably, there are some elements of the report that we respectfully disagree with, including the item related to respiratory protection, which we believe is based on inaccurate data and interpretation.
“Moving forward, Gopher remains committed to continuous improvement. Since Gopher acquired the plant 15 years ago, our unwavering commitment to workplace safety has resulted in a steady and sustained decline in the average blood lead level among employees to half of what it was.
“Employee lead levels are recognised by experts as a leading measure of health and safety and the effectiveness of efforts to protect employees - and we are dedicated to bringing them even lower.”