Bungled inspections put workers at risk at Tampa lead smelter | Editorial
The lead levels in workers’ blood could have prompted inspections. But federal regulators didn’t show up.
A worker inside Gopher Resource passes through a cloud of dust laced with the neurotoxin lead. The factory recycles 50,000 used car batteries a day. It is the only factory of its kind in Florida.
A worker inside Gopher Resource passes through a cloud of dust laced with the neurotoxin lead. The factory recycles 50,000 used car batteries a day. It is the only factory of its kind in Florida. [ Photo from a factory worker (2019) ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Apr. 1
Updated Apr. 1

Lead levels in the air 436 times the federal limit. A chronically malfunctioning ventilation system. Employees passing out on the factory floor and rushed to the hospital.

Inadequate protective gear. Broken machinery that forced men to shake poison-laden bags by hand. Workers — and some of their children — with frightening levels of lead in their blood and bones.

And for years, not an OSHA inspector anywhere to be found.

That’s only a short list of the disturbing findings from the Tampa Bay Times incredible investigation into the Gopher Resource lead recycling factory in Tampa. The first two parts of the ongoing Poisoned series depict a factory where lead dust sometimes flew so thick it obscured machinery, where sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide reached life-threatening levels, where the company used a perverse financial incentive system that included posting in a breakroom the names of workers’ with high blood-lead levels. It’s like The Hunger Games met Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, the novel that exposed the horrors of the meatpacking industry in the early 1900s. But none of this is fiction.

Just ask the dozens of Gopher Resource workers who described the conditions to Times reporters, the ones with heart and kidney disease or malfunctioning lungs, or the former worker who had two heart attacks in his early 40s. You can’t speak with Prospere Dumeus. He died in 2019 at the age of 56, after spending 32 years at the factory. In his early 50s, when he was still working at Gopher, Dumeus had the lung strength doctors would expect to see in a 100-year-old man. The Times estimated that he had 420 to 840 milligrams of lead in his bones. The specific numbers don’t matter as much as this: No amount of lead in bone is considered safe.

Proving that working at the factory caused a specific health condition is difficult. But that doesn’t mean the problems didn’t exist. Over the years, Gopher Resource — and consultants the company hired — documented dangerous levels of lead collecting in parts of the Tampa factory and equipment that consistently didn’t work or was ill suited for the job. Small monitors attached to workers’ clothing from 2007 to 2019 showed that lead levels exceeded the protection capabilities of the respirators issued to many workers. The company also submitted data to regulators from 2013 to 2014 that showed that the average lead reading in the air in the factory’s furnace department was six times higher than at the company’s other lead recycling plant in Minnesota.

When the Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspectors visited, they often bungled the job. One inspector sampled the wrong chemical — sulfuric acid instead of sulfur dioxide. Another time, a worker wearing a monitor who was supposed to represent the conditions inside the battery-breaking process instead worked outdoors where the air is cleaner. The inspector didn’t notice. Another inspector only performed air quality tests outside of the plant, not inside where workers had complained about sulfur dioxide.

OSHA also alerted the company to upcoming visits. The advance warning gave the company time to order workers to deep clean parts of the factory. The company also had time to predetermine the route to guide inspectors through the factory and ensure only supervisors spoke to the inspectors, workers told the Times. OSHA opened itself up to being hoodwinked when the average grade schooler knows that surprise inspections provide a far clearer picture of day-to-day working conditions.

The failures didn’t stop there. As part of a special program developed in 2008, the agency said regulators would inspect workplaces if a single worker had a blood-lead level of 25 micrograms per deciliter. The Times reporters found that 450 blood-lead tests of workers at Gopher hit that level from 2014 to 2018. How many times did OSHA show up to check what was going on during those years? Not once. That’s 450 good reasons to ensure worker safety, but not one of them prompted an inspection. In fact, OSHA inspectors haven’t visited the plant at all in the last five years.

The Gopher plant is one of just 10 lead battery-recycling factories in the country. It keeps about 13 million batteries a year from ending up in landfills, which is a good thing. But the company’s environmental and financial goals cannot come at the expense of basic worker safety. Gopher must immediately bring down the lead levels inside the factory and ensure that vital equipment like the ventilation system and respirators are up to the job. The company’s executives should imagine that they are the ones working in the most dangerous parts of that factory. Better yet, they should imagine that their own children are doing those already dangerous jobs. Maybe then they would ensure a safer environment and treat the workers with the respect they deserve, that any human being deserves.

And OSHA must quickly ascertain whether workers are still in peril. The agency has to crack down on Gopher for any violations. Beyond that urgent question, the U.S. Department of Labor, which oversees OSHA, must examine how the appalling lack of federal oversight allowed the factory to operate for so long under such dangerous conditions. That investigation should include a thorough inspection of every part of the factory. And this time, regulators shouldn’t tell the company what day they plan to show up.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.