Regulators with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration on Monday began inspecting Gopher Resource, a Tampa lead smelter where dangerous conditions have plagued the factory for years.
The federal inspection, which continued into Tuesday, comes a week after two members of Congress wrote to Department of Labor Secretary Marty Walsh and requested an expedited review in response to a Tampa Bay Times investigation that found hundreds of workers had been exposed to extreme amounts of lead and toxic gases.
In a letter last Wednesday, Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, and Rep. Charlie Crist, D-St. Petersburg, urged the department to take fast action, adding that “if the plant cannot operate safely, then it should not operate at all.”
This week’s site visit was the first time OSHA has inspected the factory in the last five years. The agency confirmed the inspection but didn’t provide additional details.
During a teleconference Tuesday afternoon with journalists across the South, Walsh said he had received the letter from Castor and Crist but declined to discuss the inspection.
“I can’t go into the investigation,” he said on the call.
Gopher did not answer specific questions related to the visit from regulators but released a statement saying that the company “supported calls for the OSHA inspection, welcome it, and will fully cooperate with it.”
In the two-part series Poisoned, Times reporters found that workers inside the factory had been exposed to air-lead levels hundreds of times above the federal limit. Many were issued respirators that weren’t strong enough to protect them when poison levels spiked.
The Times investigation showed that most Gopher workers had enough lead in their blood to put them at risk of health problems, including high blood pressure, kidney dysfunction and cardiovascular disease. The blood-lead levels are considered dangerous by health standards but did not require workers to be removed from exposure under OSHA rules.
The lead industry, including Gopher, is regulated by an antiquated framework, which hasn’t been updated since 1978, despite mounting medical evidence demonstrating that the rules don’t adhere to modern science.
At Gopher’s factory, workers extract lead from used car batteries, liquefy it in furnaces and turn it into new blocks of metal that the company then sells. The plant is the only lead smelter in Florida and one of 10 factories of its kind across the United States.
Current and former employees described a work environment filled with dust and overwhelming heat. They described burns from molten lead as common, referring to them as “tattoos.” Some workers passed out after being overwhelmed by heat or inhaling fumes like sulfur dioxide.
Problems with the plant’s ventilation system and other equipment failures resulted in higher levels of lead and other chemicals in the plant’s air. The Times investigation showed that the company and OSHA regulators let the toxic conditions at the factory linger for years.
When OSHA showed up for past inspections, the agency bungled visits. On one occasion, an inspector measured the wrong chemical after workers complained about high sulfur dioxide levels. Another time, inspectors missed high air-lead readings by measuring in the wrong places. The agency also gave Gopher ample warning before some site visits, allowing the company time to prepare.
Last week, in response to calls for an inspection, OSHA said it would work with Gopher and factory employees to make sure conditions were safe. The agency didn’t provide details on its plan.
Castor and Crist have also called for the U.S. Department of Justice to probe health and safety conditions at the company.