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Is Kipp A Safe Place to Work? Cleaning Employee Fired by Contractor for Asking

Is Kipp A Safe Place to Work? Cleaning Employee Fired by Contractor for Asking

(Madison-Kipp Worker Pouring Molten Aluminum)

–Madison Kipp Corporation’s non-unionized manufacturing workers, and contractors brought in to clean and do other work at the factory, are at ground zero for exposures to myriad toxic chemicals emitted in aluminum die casting processes, vapors from the giant plume of toxic volatile organic compounds (VOCs) beneath the plant, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) contaminated soils being excavated all over the site. See previous posts for more background.

Yet Kipp’s CEO Tony Koblinski assured people in a community presentation on March 19 2014 that Kipp has “good people and good jobs” and is “a company in control.” [1] Further, he asserted “people like working at Kipp, they always have.”

Kipp workers we have talked to over the years do indeed seem like good people, but the stories they told us about working there are not about “good jobs” in a factory that is “in control.” Those we have talked to—usually after they quit—not only did not like working at Kipp, but they did not feel safe or healthy there.

Our review of records, in fact, shows that Kipp’s manufacturing workers and contractors have very legitimate reasons to be concerned about their health and safety. Madison Fire Department (MFD) and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) records on Kipp from 1990 to the present indicate that the place is anything but safe for workers. From 1998 through Feb. 2014, Madison Fire Department/Emergency Medical Services (EMS) paid approximately 172 visits to the Kipp facilities on Waubesa and Atwood Ave.[2] [3] Disturbingly, well over half of these calls—we counted 113—were “emergency medical service” (EMS) calls for worker injuries and/or health problems. Some reasons for EMS calls:  chest pains, difficulty breathing, dizziness, possible heart attacks or seizures, passing out from heat, low blood pressure/fainting, lacerations/loss of blood, finger amputations, fingers caught in machines, molten metal burns, burns from propane explosion, worker hit or pinned by forklift, hit over the head, falls, sprains, and more. The first two—chest pains and breathing problems—were listed many times. Either Kipp workers are not very healthy people to begin with, or something in the facility is causing these frequent health problems—or both.[4]

Since 1990, the facility has had numerous molten metal spills, explosions, and fires—most caused by ignition of highly combustible metal dusts and filings. In addition to being obvious immediate threats to worker safety, smoke and fumes from fires and materials used to extinguish fires are often toxic and associated with respiratory problems, cancer and other long-term health problems.[5]  Kipp’s MFD and OSHA records also raise serious questions about how prepared residents near the factory, and staff at Goodman Community Center and Lowell School, are for a chlorine or other chemical accident at Kipp (or an accident involving a truck transporting chemicals to/from there on roads in the neighborhood). For more info, see here.

Cleaning worker is fired for asking if Kipp is safe, requesting not to work there

In February 2014, a worker with existing respiratory problems, who had cleaned for the company Environment Control for five years, contacted MEJO about having headaches and respiratory problems when cleaning at Kipp (which he had recently been assigned to). Several employees of this company who had cleaned at Kipp before him had already quit because they did not want to work in the foundry. He asked his managers that he be transferred to another cleaning job, but they said he would have to prove that the factory was not safe before they would take him off the Kipp job (how could a worker possibly do this?). They told him if he had a health evaluation by a doctor, validating his respiratory problems and connecting them to exposures at Kipp, they might transfer him. Not having health insurance, he could not afford to see a doctor.

He began to search for information about the kinds of toxic contaminants he might be exposed to at Kipp, and sent documents he found (including some written by top scientific experts on the kinds of contaminants found at Kipp) to his managers. Unwilling to read or believe the information he provided, they continued to refute his concerns and demand that he continue cleaning at Kipp (several hours a night, five nights a week).

Frustrated, he eventually contacted MEJO with questions. He suspected that what he was breathing in Kipp was aggravating his lungs and causing headaches. Also, he recalled that for 2-3 weeks in Jan/Feb., while PCB contaminated concrete and soils (again, see this story) were being excavated to install new machines, piles of dirt were sitting all over on the factory floor.[6] Was anything done to reduce/eliminate PCB dust levels in factory air, to protect all workers in the plant? Were workers informed of the contamination? Did they have protective gear?[7]  According to the worker, no, no, and no.[8]

He said practices in the factory seemed very sloppy.  One day while cleaning he noticed a sign in the factory that said “number of days since last accident.” The number there that day was “10.” Factory workers told him 10 days without an accident “is pretty good for Kipp.” This is a factory that is “in control”? Hmmm….

When queried, Kipp assured managers at Environment Control that the factory was perfectly safe. Kipp presented the company with a document (apparently written by Kipp’s insurance company) stating that Kipp is safe.[9]  Rather than showing concern for their employee’s health, and considering the legitimate evidence he brought forward, Environment Control managers chose to believe whatever evidence Kipp and their insurance company gave them.[10]

Sadly, in late March, after continuing to request that he not work at Kipp, the cleaning worker was fired. Apparently Environmental Control considers its employees expendable.

Kipp workers, neighbors, and others have complained of health problems for decades

Many former Kipp workers have shared stories of disturbing health and safety problems in the factory over the years. In 1996, a person who worked at Kipp through 1989 (but believed that the conditions there remained unsafe or got worse after that) wrote a summary of some of the unhealthy conditions in the factory and environmental problems. Another former worker said that there were cases in which workers collapsed from fumes.

Kipp workers aren’t the only ones who have experienced health problems at Kipp. In July 1994, a DNR employee, investigating an odor complaint submitted by a neighbor, smelled a “metallic, solvent-like odor.” Her official statement about this incident says that within five minutes of leaving the plant after the investigation: “I experienced a dizzy, woozy feeling. My face and fingers felt numb and tingly, my heart was pounding, and I found my breathing rapid and shallow. My proprioreception was disrupted and I did not believe I could safely drive.”

In the last few years, there have been similar odd cases of people suddenly suffering health effects near Kipp.  In 2009, the Fire Department responded to situation in which a 10-year old child walking back from a school field trip felt faint and laid down on the grass on Atwood Avenue in front of the Kipp factory (it is unclear whether this incident was connected to any Kipp emissions—but it raises questions). In 2012, a bicyclist was riding on the bike path behind the Atwood plant, smelled a noxious odor that he connected with Kipp, and became nauseous.

Hundreds of reports have been submitted to local agencies over the last two decades by residents in the neighborhood about noxious smells from Kipp—especially the smell of chlorine and/or a “waxy/oily/burnt” smell. According to a 2001 report, “Evaluation of Community Exposure to Emissions from Madison Kipp Corporation,” people “identified both of these odors as the cause of acute illness including asthma attacks, sore throat, nausea vomiting etc.” and goes on to say “it is reasonable to assume that reports of chlorine odors originate from the aluminum melting and drossing process” and “emission of chlorine from this process is the most likely source of these odor complaints.” It also notes that “waxy/oily/burnt” smell in the neighborhood is from the die casting process but that “the chemical composition of this odor is unknown.”

Odor complaints have continued in recent years.[11] In early 2013, a resident on S. Marquette St., next to Kipp, emailed public health agency staff saying that 5 or 6 times in the last several years, he and his wife had “noticed the strong smell of burning rubber or plastic emitting from the basement stairs in our home,” particularly after heavy rainstorms or large snow melt-off events.” He noted that the smell “is not dissimilar to one of the odors that we occasionally smell outdoors and that the neighborhood generally associates with MKC.” He recalled a day in late 2012 in which “several in our neighborhood reported smelling a chlorine smell coming from the MKC property,” and he personally detected a “fairly strong burning rubber smell outdoors.”

Despite all of these worker and neighborhood complaints over the years, public health agencies have insisted many times that there are no harmful exposures in the neighborhood around Kipp—even while admitting many times in the 2001 report that there is not enough data to make this determination. As we described in previous articles (see here and here), a group of citizens from the community worked with government health agencies for nearly two years to develop a health study in the Kipp area, but the study was eventually dropped, for reasons that are unclear. Many suspect that Kipp played a role in shutting the study down.

Meanwhile, none of the DNR or public health agency reports, documents, or communications to date (we have reviewed thousands of pages of them) have even mentioned, let alone expressed concern about, potential exposures to workers inside the plant. Apparently manufacturing workers, most of whom are citizens of Madison and Dane County, are not included in their definition of “public health.”

Many respiratory irritants and toxins emitted in aluminum die casting facilities…

The fired cleaning worker’s aggravated respiratory symptoms and headaches in the factory parallel Madison Fire Department visits to the factory to attend to workers with chest pains, breathing problems, dizziness, and related symptoms. Moreover, Kipp’s terrible worker health, safety and OSHA records indicate that Kipp is doing far from an adequate job inside the factory protecting their workers from exposures to harmful chemicals, regardless of whether or not they meet standards (which is unknown, due to lack of adequate data). Many existing workplace health standards, heavily influenced by industry lobbying, are known to be far too lax and not adequate to protect workers’ health.

What are Kipp’s workers exposed to?  Releases from Kipp’s stacks aren’t all the same as what’s in factory air, but can tell us something about what chemicals the facility uses and emits into factory air.

As of 2004, EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) listed the following as top air releases in aluminum die casting industries all over the U.S: aluminum (fume or dust), trichloroethylene, tetrachloroethylene, zinc (fume or dust), zinc compounds, copper, hexachloroethane, glycol ethers.[12] Unfortunately, it is increasingly difficult to find out what comes out of Madison-Kipp stacks in particular—in part due to industry’s political lobbying to keep this information out of the public realm, inadequate monitoring and lax regulatory approaches [13] .  Madison-Kipp’s 2012 DNR Air Emissions Inventory Report lists the following emissions: carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter, hydrogen chloride, and “reactive organic gas” or ROG (otherwise known as volatile organic chemicals or VOCs). Many of Kipp’s most toxic emissions, however, are not reported on Kipp’s air inventories—or were in the past but are no longer .[14] [15] [16]  For instance, Kipp also emits dioxins and furans (among the most toxic compounds ever studied), aluminum salts, fluorides, fluorinated compounds, chlorine, chlorinated and chlorofluorinated compounds, numerous metals, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and several other toxic compounds that are not listed on the inventories.

Just as problematically, the chemical composition of emissions from Kipp’s die casting processes—which include reactive organic gases (ROGs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), small particulates, metals, and a mix of other contaminants found in oil mists associated with metalworking fluids used as die lubricants (discussed in more detail later)—have never been assessed.[17] The “emissions factors” used to assess the levels of ROGs and particulates emitted from the die casters are old and inadequate (based on tests done in the mid-90s), and Kipp has added many more die cast machines since the time they were developed. So the estimated levels of ROGs and particulates on inventories are likely too low. (Several years ago, Kipp raised its stacks higher in order to disperse these compounds, associated with the “waxy/oily/burnt” smell nearby residents have complained about for years, further out into the community. Given this, it defies common sense (and science) to assert–as Mr. Koblinski did on March 19–that none of the PAHs and other contaminants found in nearby residential soils are from the facility. The elaborate (but problematic) statistical analyses by Kipp’s consultants, and comparisons to background samples obtained by government agencies (which certainly included some of Kipp’s PAHs, dispersed widely around the community via taller stacks) do not prove that none of the PAHs and other contaminants found in soils offsite came from Kipp).

As a result of inadequate reporting and data gaps, it is difficult for citizens or workers to track what Kipp is really emitting outside or inside the plant. Efforts by the Madison Department of Public Health (now called Public Health Madison Dane County, PHMDC) to assess exposures in the Kipp neighborhood were aborted because of limited or no air monitoring. Ultimately the agency concluded in its 2001 report that there were too many data gaps to draw any conclusions, and recommended more air monitoring. Unfortunately, 13 years after this report was written, no further air monitoring around Kipp has been done.

What are workers breathing inside Kipp?

Many of the compounds emitted from Kipp’s stacks are likely found to some degree inside the factory, where workers are exposed to a number of them at the same time. Unfortunately, even less information is publicly available about chemical exposures inside Kipp than is available about outdoor emissions.[18] Regardless, several of the compounds listed above and known to be emitted from, and found inside, aluminum die casting facilities, can aggravate respiratory problems and a range of other health effects. Kipp workers have also been breathing unknown levels of toxic vapors from beneath the plant, which include tetrachloroethylene (PCE), trichloroethylene (TCE), vinyl chloride (VC), and other VOCs known to aggravate respiratory problems and headaches. Most of these chemicals are also associated in scientific studies with a number of serious long-term health problems, including cancer.

Next we discuss some of the above compounds that are most likely aggravating respiratory and other acute problems among workers. We discuss the sparse data available from monitoring inside of Kipp, what it can (or cannot) tell us about exposures to Kipp workers, and government agency actions (or lack thereof) related to Kipp workers’ health and safety.

If you have read this far, and are interested in learning more about what we have learned, please email us at info@mejo.us.



[1] The talk was most likely written by Kipp’s law firm, Michael Best & Friederich

[2] These numbers are approximate (possibly underestimated) due to gaps in records; they also don’t include Fire/EMS calls to the Sun Prairie facility.

[3] While some of these recorded calls were false alarms, we have heard that many times there are close calls (near-miss accidents and fires, etc) for which nobody ever calls the Fire Department, in part because management wants to keep the official fire call record as low as possible. Consequently, the official number of calls in records is likely an underestimate of the actual number of accidents, fires, and worker illnesses.

[4] Kipp’s lowest-end manufacturing workers, contractor cleaning employees, and temporary workers include ex-offenders, homeless people, and a significant proportion of minorities. Sadly, statistics show that these groups are likely to be much less healthy than more privileged people—making them even more vulnerable to health problems from exposures to contaminants in Kipp. Many also lack health insurance. This is a significant environmental justice issue that has been completely ignored by Kipp and the government agencies responsible for protecting public health in Madison/Dane Co. and Wisconsin.

[5] A fire on August 1, 1992 sent four firefighters to the hospital after they inhaled noxious fumes. The Aug. 2 1992 Madison newspaper article on this fire, titled “Molten Flames,” says that the building filled with smoke and noxious fumes.

[6]  He only found out about it after coming across it on the MEJO website.

[7] Some of the precautions EPA recommends when excavating contaminated soil: “Handling contaminated soil requires precautions to ensure safety. Site workers are trained to follow safety procedures while excavating soil to avoid contact with contaminants…Site workers typically wear protective clothing such as rubber gloves, boots, hard hats, and coveralls. These items are either washed or disposed of before leaving the site to keep workers from carrying contaminated soil offsite on their shoes and clothing…Workers monitor the air to make sure dust and contaminant vapors are not present at levels that may pose a breathing risk, and monitors may be placed around the site to ensure that dust or vapors are not leaving it. Site workers close to the excavation may need to wear “respirators,” which are face masks equipped with filters that remove dust and contaminants from the air…

[8] Now the new machinery is installed, the dirt was hauled away, and the floors cleaned up. The area was re-painted and is clean and shiny.

[9] From what we understand (not having seen this document), the last inspection in Kipp for insurance purposes was 3 years ago.

[10] Mr. Koblinski said in his March 19 presentation that the company’s current priorities include “managing health risks to employees” and “communicating openly with the neighborhood.” If this is the case, the company should openly share the health and safety assessments done inside the factory by insurance companies and other third parties. If they are unwilling to share these assessments, what are they hiding?  On the other hand, if the assessments are comprehensive and state of the art, and show that the factory is safe, that would be reassuring to workers and the neighborhood. So why won’t Kipp share them?

[11] In the weeks just before this article was written, residents near Kipp have reported increased odors from the plant, including a particularly acrid smell that seems new to them.

[12] Dalquist and Gutkowski, 2004

[13] Again, see previous articles

[14] In Wisconsin, industry (likely including MKC) lobbied to not report certain emissions on public inventories at all unless they were modeled at over NR 438 levels. See previous article describing some of these issues, particularly as they relate to dioxins and chlorinated compounds, among Kipp’s most toxic emissions.

[15] Given that Kipp purportedly no longer uses tetrachoroethylene (PCE) (and it is not clear whether they still use trichloroethylene, TCE), it is unknown whether Kipp has or still does emit these compounds from its stacks; PCE, TCE, and their breakdown product, vinyl chloride, have never been tested for in Kipp’ air stack emissions. They are being emitted (and monitored) from soil vapor extraction (SVE) systems on the site. It’s unknown what compounds Kipp used to replace PCE—and what kinds of emissions might be associated with these replacement chemicals

[16] MEJO has asked government agencies several times what Kipp replaced PCE/TCE and PCBs with, but have never received answers.

[17] Levels of ROGs listed on Kipp’s inventories have increased significantly in recent years, from 17.4 tons in 2008  to just over 26  tons in 2012 (2013 and 2014 levels are not available yet). Of course, these levels do not include VOCs being emitted from vapor extraction systems all over the site.

[18] Air monitoring in aluminum die casting facilities has been relatively scant—in part due to die-cast industry’s competitiveness, success in withholding proprietary information about the chemicals they use, and resistance to any monitoring in their plants.

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