The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration on June 21 cited Honeywell for 17 serious safety violations at its uranium processing plant in Metropolis, Illinois. Members of the United Steelworkers Local 7-669 have been locked out of the jobs at the plant for over a year now because they wanted to protect their health care and pension benefits and stop company efforts to lower their overtime pay. Since the lock out began, Local 7-669 members have voiced concerns about the threats to community safety posed by the plant that is being operated by replacement workers.
Since the lockout began, Honeywell has been cited by the Nuclear Regulatory Agency and the Environmental Protection Agency as well as OSHA for major safety violations leading Local 7-669 to call attention to the fact that union members are the only ones truly concerned about safety at the plant.
“The OSHA violations further validate (Local 7-669’s) claim that union members are the guardians of safety in the plant, and left to itself, Honeywell will not ensure a true culture of safety first,” said Darrell Little, USW Local 7-669 president.
The OSHA citation identified safety violations that threaten the safety of the surrounding community as well as the people in and around the plant. Among the most serious of the safety violations were the ones having to do with the handling of hydrofluoric acid, a highly corrosive acid that’s part of the uranium enrichment process.
According to the OSHA citation, the company did not properly manage changes required to prevent leaks from a vessel containing hydrofluoric acid. The changes were required after a vessel containing hydrofluoric acid leaked last December spewing the acid into the air. Hydrofluoric acid is a highly corrosive acid that is dangerous to breathe and can cause blindness. It can also be absorbed through skin and cause heart attacks. OSHA also said that Honeywell had not identified the causes of another leak to the same vessel that took place in 20o7.
OSHA fined the company $119,000 for the safety violations. The company has 15 days to appeal the citation. In March, Honeywell pleaded guilty to charges by the EPA that it mishandled toxic waste at the plant and agreed to pay an $11.8 million fine. Meanwhile, Honeywell contends that safety is its first priority.
“You begin to wonder about Honeywell’s credibility when you consider the nearly $12 million in federal fines Honeywell was forced to pay this past March for violations cited by the Environmental Protection Agency.” Lillie said.
Lillie also said that Honeywell was unwilling to cooperate with either the EPA or OSHA. Lillie said the EPA had to get a search warrant to find nearly 7,500 drums of illegally stored toxic and radioactive waste. OSHA also had a federal warrant to conduct its safety inspection, but Honeywell would not permit the inspection two times in February because a union worker as allowed by federal law accompanied OSHA on its inspection.
Local 7-669 members were locked out because they wouldn’t accept Honeywell’s demand that they accept steep increases to their health care costs, changes to the way overtime is calculated, and other changes that affected workers’ pay and benefits. It looked like the lockout might come to an end on June 6 when the company and Local 7-669 reached a tentative agreement.
The company was to draft the agreed upon language and present it for both parties to review the next day, but the draft did not contain the same language on overtime agreed to the day before. The union refused to accept the new language, and the lockout continued.
The company has criticized the union for not setting a date for negotiations to resume, but Lillie said at a rally held on June 25 in Metropolis to commemorate the first anniversary of the lock out that all the company has to do to end the lockout is send the union a fax with the original language agreed to on June 6.
At the same rally, where more than 800 people turned out to support the 232 locked out Local 7-669 members, state representatives Brandon Phelps and Gary Forby told the crowd that they would be holding hearings on Honeywell’s reckless regard for safety at the plant and the dangers it presents to the people living in nearby communities.
“We know that what we’re fighting for isn’t just about the members of 7-669,” said USW international vice-president Fred Redmond at the rally. “It’s about a safer community. It’s about our neighbors, our friends and our families. What we’re fighting for is about the rights and dignity of workers everywhere and for the future of our kids and grandkids.”