Kimberly King of Selma, Alabama has asthma.
Her asthma developed after she began working at the local Renosol Seating plant, owned and operated by the Lear Corporation.
King is not alone. According to an NBC report, eight Lear workers at the Renosol plant now have serious respiratory problems that they didn’t have before going to work at Lear’s Selma plant, which employs about 80 production workers. Of those eight, four have asthma.
Lear makes foam cushions for car seats and headrests at its Selma factory and sells them exclusively to Hyundai.
It uses a chemical called toluene diisocyanate (TDI) to make the foam cushions. Exposure to TDI can cause sensitization to TDI which can lead to asthma attacks and other respiratory problems.
When King spoke out publicly for better health and safety at the plant, Lear fired her. For good measure, Lear filed suit against her charging King with defamation of character.
Because King had been cooperating with staff from the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in an investigation of Lear’s Selma plant, Lear’s over the top reaction struck the US Labor Department as an attempt to obstruct OSHA’s investigation.
Consequently, the department filed a suit against Lear charging the corporation with obstruction and obtained a temporary restraining order that prevents Lear from firing, suing, threatening to sue, or intimidating its current and former employees.
The temporary restraining order is the latest development in a story that began last year when Lear workers including King asked OSHA to investigate health and safety conditions at their plant.
OSHA’s initial investigation resulted in fines and citations for Lear, and the agency found sufficient evidence to warrant a more exhaustive review of health and safety conditions at the plant.
As part of its investigation, OSHA interviewed King and other Lear workers.
In March King, who is also active among workers at the Lear plant who are trying to form a union, tried to deliver a letter to Hyundai headquarters in Montgomery, Alabama.
The letter asked Hyundai to urge Lear, its sole contractor for the foam cushions used in Hyundai cars manufactured in Alabama, to improve health and safety conditions at its plant.
When King, who is also a leader of the Selma Workers Organizing Committee, returned to work after the visit, Lear fired her and then a few days later filed suit against her.
King had taken other action to promote health and safety at the plant that may have provoked Lear’s ire as well.
After the United Auto Workers, which has been assisting the Lear workers in their effort to improve health and safety at the plant, arranged to have occupational safety experts at Yale University test the blood of a sample of Lear workers for traces in TDI, King passed out blood testing kits to nine Lear workers who then had their blood drawn by local physicians.
The blood samples were sent to Yale. NBC reports that four workers “tested positive for TDI sensitization that would be consistent with related asthma or other respiratory illnesses.”
Adam Wiznewski, a Yale research scientist involved in the testing, told NBC that the fact that the tests showed worker sensitization to TDI was “cause for concern.”
Within the next two weeks, the judge who issued the temporary restraining order will hold a hearing to determine whether the injunction against Lear should stay in place.
In the meantime, workers at Lear’s Selma plant are saying that they will continue their fight to improve health and safety at Lear.
“I’ve seen all the medication Kim needs to take to help with her breathing. I’ve seen her coughing until it hurts,” said Letasha Irby, who has worked at the Hyundai supplier in Selma since 2006. “It’s shameful and alarming that Lear would try to silence workers standing up for our safety rather than simply accepting responsibility for providing a safe workplace. Workers at this plant are going to continue standing up for the good jobs and safe conditions that this community deserves.”