OSHA fines Tampa lead factory $319,000

The lead smelter was the subject of a recent Tampa Bay Times investigation.
Federal regulators on Thursday gave Gopher Resource a "willful violation" for exposing workers to inhalation hazards.
Federal regulators on Thursday gave Gopher Resource a "willful violation" for exposing workers to inhalation hazards. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Sept. 30, 2021|Updated Oct. 1, 2021

Gopher Resource faces more than $319,000 in fines after a federal investigation found the company willfully exposed workers to high levels of airborne lead.

The investigation, which the Occupational Safety and Health Administration started in April, was prompted by a Tampa Bay Times series on Gopher’s troubled lead factory.

The Times discovered that the levels of lead in the Tampa factory’s air were often hundreds of times the federal limit — putting hundreds of employees at risk of serious health consequences.

On Thursday, OSHA cited Gopher for 44 violations, including one “willful” violation for not providing adequate respirators to workers who were exposed to high concentrations of lead in four different departments. That citation alone — OSHA’s most serious — carries a $136,532 fine.

The total fine appears to be one of the highest in Florida since 2015, according to a Times review of OSHA press releases and data.

Debbie Berkowitz, a former senior OSHA official, called it “very substantial” and predicted it would be among the largest issued by the agency this year.

In a statement, OSHA’s Tampa area director Danelle Jindra said Gopher had “put their bottom line above the safety and well-being of their workers.”

“Every worker has the right to a safe workplace, and they should never have to decide between their own health and earning a living,” Jindra said. “Continuing to put workers in harm’s way is unacceptable, and OSHA will continue to hold employers like Gopher Resource responsible.”

Gopher said it was still reviewing the report, but had “already implemented the majority of OSHA’s recommendations.” The other recommendations, the company added, “have been given the highest priority.”

Gopher said it disagreed with some of OSHA’s determinations — and believed the finding about respirators to be based on “inaccurate data and interpretation.” The company did not elaborate.

Before April, OSHA had not visited the plant in five years. In previous visits, inspectors repeatedly missed evidence of problems and failed to hold Gopher accountable, the Times found.

“OSHA missed this hazard in previous inspections,” Berkowitz said. “They could have prevented it then.”

The agency’s Thursday report ran 67 pages and included a wide range of violations, 34 of which were labeled “serious.”

Among the issues: allowing workers to sweep and shovel dangerous lead dust, letting them share damaged protective gear and exposing them to cadmium and inorganic arsenic, two other toxic metals known to cause cancer.

OSHA inspectors found workers in the furnace department were exposed to air-lead levels hundreds of times above the agency’s exposure limit.

They found lead dust coating surfaces in lunch and locker rooms.

They found that workers in the furnace and refining areas were exposed to too much arsenic and cadmium and that Gopher did not have the proper mechanical systems in place to limit the exposure.

Arsenic dusted the knob of a beverage cooler.

Bathrooms were dirty and dusty and didn’t have soap for hand-washing. Fire exits were blocked and extinguishers were missing. Protective suits for workers were left uncleaned and in contaminated areas.

Gopher has 15 days to comply with OSHA’s recommendations or contest the findings.

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, a Tampa Democrat who had asked for the OSHA review after reading the Times report, called the situation at Gopher “a failure on all levels.”

“These violations by Gopher make it clear that the health of our neighbors was jeopardized every day they came to work with damaged, lead-exposed equipment,” she said in a statement. “No one should be forced to choose between a paycheck and a hazardous workplace.”

Castor called the federal action “an important step in holding Gopher responsible for their misdeeds,” but also said it underscored the need to update the federal workplace safety standards.

“While the Tampa Bay Times outstanding investigative journalism brought these working conditions to light, it should not take a newspaper expose for our workers to be safe on the job,” she said. “A 50-year-old law cannot meaningfully oversee the 21st century workplace, and I’ll continue advocating to update the law, increase OSHA’s resources and increase allowable civil penalties.”

U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, D-St. Petersburg, called OSHA’s findings “horrific.”

“It’s an environmental disaster; it’s a human tragedy,” he said. “It’s clearly profits over people.”

The Times series found that from 2014 to 2018, the majority of Gopher’s workers had enough lead in their blood to increase their risk of high blood pressure, kidney dysfunction or cardiovascular disease. The Times also identified more than a dozen current and former workers who had heart attacks or strokes before age 60.

Gopher knew it had a problem with lead dust, but it disabled ventilation features and provided workers with inadequate respirators. And its contracted doctor didn’t tell workers when their blood-lead levels put them at risk.

Earlier this month, the Times reported that Gopher also struggled to contain the levels of cadmium in the plant.

In addition to prompting the OSHA review, the Times’ report prompted one former worker to sue Gopher over his son’s exposure and Moody’s to downgrade Gopher’s credit rating.

Local environmental regulators also launched an inquiry and flagged more than two dozen potential violations.

The company recycles car batteries by melting them down and forging new blocks to sell to battery and ammunition manufacturers.

OSHA also cited a second Tampa company with ties to the smelter on Thursday.

A & B Maintenance & Construction Inc. also received a citation for exposing its workers to lead at the Tampa factory.

The company provides supplemental maintenance at the site, OSHA said. It faces $16,384 in penalties.

This story is part of a collaboration with FRONTLINE, the PBS series, through its Local Journalism Initiative, which is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.