Unhappy with what they call a “piecemeal approach” to safety problems at an Illinois auto parts maker, labor officials are calling for a wall-to-wall inspection of the plant.

Recent violations found at one Flex-N-Gate operation have workers “increasingly concerned about unsafe conditions at the company's facilities in Illinois and Indiana,” according to a statement by the United Auto Workers (UAW), which notes that OSHA has issued four sets of citations in the past eight months to the company for serious violations of federal workplace safety regulations at Guardian West, its bumper plant in Urbana, Ill.

Flex-N-Gate is a $3 billion global auto parts maker supplying vehicle bumpers and other parts to Chrysler, Ford, General Motors and Toyota.

Weaknesses in OSHA's enforcement

The UAW is critical of OSHA’s decision to only investigate specific issues raised in a safety complaint from a worker, even if there are related safety issues in the same work area that are readily apparent to a trained investigator. A wall-to-wall inspection, the union says, would give investigators more freedom to address all potential safety hazards. Such comprehensive inspections are required as part of the agency's "national emphasis programs" on combustible dust and hexavalent chromium - both areas where Flex-N-Gate has already received citations from OSHA.

The UAW has been joined in its bid to get more comprehensive inspections done at the company’s facilities by the AFL-CIO and Change to Win. The latter's Health and Safety Director, Eric Frumin, charged Flex-N-Gate with taking advantage “of weaknesses in OSHA's enforcement.”

"Flex-N-Gate managers are well aware they are breaking the law and jeopardizing their employees' lives in the process," said UAW Vice President Cindy Estrada, who directs the union's auto parts supplier department. "It's time for this highly profitable company to stop risking lives in order to add a dollar to their bottom line."

Chemical accident risk and faulty machinery

Manufacturing chrome bumpers involves using heavy stamping presses that are nearly two stories tall. The polishing process creates a fine metal dust that can catch fire or explode. Polished bumpers are then either painted - which can potentially expose workers to fumes - or dipped in chrome. The chemicals used in chrome-plating are known to cause cancer and can cause skin rashes and breathing problems. OSHA has issued citations to Flex-N-Gate for failing to provide workers with proper protective equipment – including respiratory protection – and failing to follow procedures to prevent workers from being crushed by heavy equipment.

The latest set of citations, issued Jan.17, came after workers at the Guardian West plant filed a complaint with the Illinois OSHA office because bumpers and parts racks transported via an overhead conveyor were not securely fastened and frequently fell near workers. OSHA issued an initial fine of $7,000.

Running for the exits

Two days before that, on Jan. 15, OSHA cited the company for seven serious violations and proposed fines totaling $41,200 stemming from a chemical accident at Guardian West on July 18, 2012. On that day, a tanker delivered a bulk shipment of hydrochloric acid and, while under plant management's supervision, the truck driver inadvertently unloaded his cargo into a storage tank containing sulfuric acid. As pressure built inside the tank from the poisonous combination, toxic gas released into the plant, causing workers to run for the exits to escape the fumes.

Eleven workers were rushed by ambulance to area hospitals suffering from chest pain, breathing difficulty, disorientation, headache, nausea and throat irritation. Many workers sought medical attention in the days following the accident and reported symptoms more than week after the chemical release.

In June 2012 OSHA fined Guardian West $57,000 for its mishandling of hexavalent chromium, a highly carcinogenic compound used to chrome plate bumpers. A second set of citations and a $21,000 fine was issued to the plant in October 2012 after OSHA found a fire risk caused by large amounts of combustible metal dust in the plant, and hazards from improperly secured machinery.


"You could walk in my front door..."

At the company’s Masterguard plant in Veedersburg, Ind., workers have been trying to get Indiana OSHA to investigate safety problems similar to those at the Urbana facility. Workers in Veedersburg have filed charges with the state OSHA office in Indianapolis on two separate occasions, the most recent on Dec. 12, 2012. To date, the workers are not aware if any action has been taken by Indiana OSHA regarding their concerns. Indiana has a "state plan" that must comply with federal law, but the agency doesn't report directly to federal safety regulators.

"They were supposed to have been here and done their walk-through, and they haven't done it," said worker Brad Wagoner, who filed a complaint with the Indiana state agency after management refused to address his concerns about live electric wires hanging in his work area. While he is hopeful Indiana OSHA will follow up this time, Wagoner said he has seen agents conduct an investigation at the plant before and was disappointed. "They don't do a thorough job," he said. "It's like, you could walk in my front door, through my living room and kitchen, and out the back door and say you've done an OSHA inspection."

According to its website, the Flex/N/Gate Group embraces the Global Sullivan Principles, which include proving “a safe and healthy workplace” for its employees.