Injured Alcoa worker raises concerns about plant
Nov. 2, 2013 at 6:02 a.m.
Updated Nov. 4, 2013 at 5:04 a.m.
To report safety concerns
Need to report unsafe activity? There are several avenues to explore:
• To make a report to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, call 1-800-321-6742 or visit OSHA.gov.
• To make a report to the Mine Safety and Health Administration, call 1-800-746-1553 or visit MSHA.gov.
• Go through the union. To reach United Steelworkers 4370 in Point Comfort, call 361-987-2305, or to access the national website, visit USW.org.
Alcoa's alumina - how it's made:
- Bauxite arrives in several ships monthly from Guinea or other areas of the Caribbean and South America. Each ship holds about 50,000 metric tons.
- Bauxite is unloaded and stored, and bulldozers blend the different grades of bauxite before it goes on to the refining process. Alcoa uses the four-step Bayer refining process, which includes digestion, clarification, precipitation and calcination. It begins with separating the alumina from bauxite's other components by crushing the bauxite and mixing it with hot caustic in large pressure tanks known as "digesters."
- The substance goes through two digester cycles, during which the caustic dissolves the alumina and forms sodium aluminate.
- Insolubles such as sand and mud settle to the bottom and are filtered out. This leaves dissolved alumina hydrate behind.
- Liquor from the clarification process is cooled before going into solution, in which it crystallizes the alumina that was dissolved in the digesters.
- The liquor, which now contains alumina, is pumped into large tanks where precipitation begins. During this process, the liquid is cooled, and seed crystals are added to the mix, which causes the alumina to crystalize.
- As the crystals grow, they settle out of the solution.
- Finally, the crystals - now called "hydrate" - are filtered, washed and heated up to 2,000 degrees in order to remove water. The remaining substance, alumina, is a white powder consisting of half aluminum, half oxygen. The calcination department also creates special calcines and wet filter cake used in things such as paper, China dinnerware, synthetic marble and electronic packaging.
Source: Alcoa Point Comfort website
On-site safety measures
Laurel Cahill, spokeswoman for Alcoa's Point Comfort operations, discussed employee safety procedures that went into place in 2010.
Anytime a department takes on a task, those involved take part in a pre-job briefing in which employees and supervisors talk about the work at hand, the possible hazards and the actions that need to be done to complete the work safely.
They then break the job down step by step, review the procedure and determine at what point they need to regroup and stop the job if it appears there might be an unsafe outcome.
Alcoa encourages employees to report any unsafe behavior, broken equipment and the like through any one of a number of options, including a supervisor and the safety team.
POINT COMFORT - A plant accident changed William "Chandler" Thompson's life forever.
As he continues to battle injuries suffered then, he has mounted his own personal campaign to educate others about the potential dangers that accompany plant work.
The Point Comfort resident was nearing the two-month mark Aug. 18, 2006, as a general mechanic at Alcoa's alumina manufacturing plant in Point Comfort when a supervisor asked him to assist a team in tying in conductivity meters.
Thompson, then 35, ventured out and got to work and was waiting on a wrench the group was sharing when it happened.
When the supervisor turned on the pressure before the bolts were properly secured, a piece of metal tubing flew off and hit Thompson on the side of the head.
"I don't remember if I was unconscious or not. I remember loud noises and people talking," he said. "My next recollection is the control room. All I know is what people told me."
Seven years after the accident that left Thompson with permanent injuries and thousands of dollars spent out of pocket for medical expenses, he said he's speaking out in hopes of highlighting safety issues.
An Oct. 24 incident that led a burned contract worker to be flown to a hospital is the latest example of a company he accuses of failing to place a proper priority on worker safety.
Also, on Sept. 9, five employees were burned during an accident in the plant's digestion area.
However, Alcoa contends that safety is its top priority and that the company has made important strides in recent years.
Thompson said his injury could have been avoided had the team followed Alcoa's set standards. The company's system uses tags and lockboxes to ensure crew members are out of harm's way before a valve is activated.
Oftentimes, however, he said, seniority trumps protocol. If the book says to do a job one way but a longtime supervisor says to do it another, teams go with the supervisor's instructions.
"They don't follow their own procedures," Thompson said. "Why have them if you don't follow them? People have been killed out there."
Safety is No. 1 at Alcoa, company spokeswoman Laurel Cahill said during a phone interview. Since 2011, she said, the number of injuries that led to employees taking days away from work or restricting work because of injuries decreased by 60 percent.
Cahill added that, since 2010, the company has trained every employee on human performance, which allows them to recognize situations that carry a risk, speak with supervisors and determine the best way to tackle the task at hand.
Workers are encouraged to report any safety concerns, violations or equipment issues, Cahill said in an emailed company statement. In another email, she said Alcoa maintains a firm commitment to its core values, including safety.
"Our safety systems are anchored by committed people who are actively engaged and effectively supporting a safe work environment and safe work methods," it said. "This makes it all the more disappointing when someone suffers a serious injury on our plant site. Alcoa and the union cooperate on accident investigations to further ensure we create and maintain a safe work environment."
She went on in the statement to say that Alcoa Point Comfort has lock, tag, verify and work permit procedures in place to control hazardous energy.
"Because critical procedures can sometimes become routine, repetitive and lead to overconfidence, we consistently monitor our procedures and follow up accordingly when deviations from established procedures are identified," it read. "If there is evidence that the control of hazardous energy in a pipeline or vessel has not been effective or confirmed, we expect the personnel involved in the task to stop work and seek help before proceeding."
Alcoa acknowledged Thompson's 2006 injury and said that, as an employee, he receives full health care benefits with no lifetime maximum.
His workers' compensation case was closed in 2009, the company said, after his impairment income benefits were paid in full.
Because Thompson remains an active employee and medical and workers' compensation claims are confidential, Cahill said she could not provide much else regarding his specific case.
Jim Frederick, assistant director of health, safety and environment with United Steelworkers, said he wouldn't characterize Alcoa as a company that raises more concerns than others regarding safety but noted United Steelworkers works with some of its larger companies - Alcoa included - on ongoing safety measures.
The union participates with the company periodically, he said, and hosts an annual health and safety conference during which representatives from each Alcoa plant gather with United Steelworkers representatives.
"The purpose is always to address the big picture of health and safety concerns," Frederick said, "things that cut across the entire corporation."
COVERING THE BASES
Victoria attorney John Griffin is not associated with Thompson's case but often deals with work-related injuries at his practice. He encouraged anyone injured on the job to find someone - typically a lawyer - early on to investigate the incident's cause.
Not every deficiency is the employer's responsibility, and unless a death is involved, a worker can't typically sue an employer. If other companies bear some responsibility for the injury, such as a manufacturer of a faulty monitor or a company that failed to place proper warning labels on products, Griffin said, it's important for both the injured person and his or her family to know.
"Then they're not limited to the very cramped remedies of workers' compensation," he explained. "Those restrictions are severely limiting, sometimes to tragic and unfortunate results for the families."
Thompson noted that, while workers' compensation paid for some of his treatments, he has paid $10,000 or more out of pocket.
Such investigations oftentimes benefit the employer, too, as it might receive reimbursements from the companies responsible for the injuries, Griffin said.
Workers concerned about unsafe work environments may report issues with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Griffin said. The person making the report is protected by law against retaliation if he or she believes in good faith the employer is engaging in unsafe practices.
"They don't even have to be right that there's an OSHA violation," he noted. "If they believe there's an issue, they have every right to report it."
Alcoa is overseen by the Mine Safety and Health Administration, and like OSHA, workers can report issues via that avenue, Frederick said. He also suggested people take their concerns to the union.
United Steelworkers, for instance, makes a point to look into complaints. Sometimes that means venturing out to the plant at hand to participate in the inspections, and sometimes it doesn't, he said, but there are local officers and shop stewards available to help.
"They are resources to the local workers," Frederick said, noting representatives are in Point Comfort looking into the Oct. 24 accident. "They should feel free to work with these folks, either on the clock or off."
Thompson, who said he has spoken with numerous lawyers through the years but to no avail, said his concerns don't end with safety.
Immediately after his 2006 injury, he said, plant safety personnel beat him to the hospital to handle the issue, and injuries were misrepresented in initial documentation. That documentation was later updated.
In years since his accident, he said, he's also faced numerous accusations that he's threatened co-workers, harassed them and more.
A February 2012 letter from Human Resources Manager Helen Gadsden-Ross, addressed to Thompson and two others, cited those accusations and noted that, following investigations, most were unsubstantiated. The letter goes on to say such behavior affects the machine shop's morale and says the company's position is not to take sides but to resolve the issues before they escalate.
The men were warned that further complaints against one another would result in disciplinary action and possibly termination.
Thompson said he has since been moved to a different location within the plant to work.
Cahill, in an email, said Alcoa treats all employees with dignity and respect and does not tolerate harassment of any type.
Other problems stem from the union side, Thompson said, noting that since his accident, he has received little to no support from United Steelworkers 4370, the Point Comfort union he pays dues to for representation for himself and other workers.
He alleges a former union president tried to force him out and developed a sort of personal vendetta. He helped cover up Thompson's accident, he said, explaining the former president shredded documents important to the case.
"He's openly admitted to miserably failing me as a union," Thompson said, adding that he still pays union dues, mainly because it's easier to fight from the inside than out. "The union ought to be embarrassed."
The current local union president, Mike Cabrera, has made some headway, Thompson noted, but his hands remain tied.
Cabrera declined comment regarding both Thompson's situation and the union itself.
Frederick works in United Steelworkers' health, safety and environment department, which he said supports local unions on matters pertaining to - as the name implies - health, safety and the environment. That covers a wide array of work, he said, from making sure plants have an effective health and safety committee in operation to ensuring plants keep up with regulatory requirements and even understanding good industry practices and making sure employers use those practices whenever possible.
Frederick said he hates to hear of any union member experiencing concerns with health and safety in the workplace but encourages those with worries to go to the union representatives.
There are various layers people can go through, he said, from the local union to the local union's executive board onto the district level and even those in the national office.
Still, more concerns come at the home front, where Thompson said he's received death threats from people at work.
He said he recently found a pistol zip-tied to his car and that people have planted marijuana on him in hopes of getting him to quit.
"It's gotten to where, if they don't try to set you up to get you arrested or fired, it's more allegations," he said. "I walk on eggshells every day I walk in that gate because I know what they're trying to do."
He said his only rationalization for the treatment is that he's a liability. And the best way to handle a liability, he said, is to get rid of it.
Thompson said he'll always have physical reminders of that day back in 2006.
After multiple neck surgeries for a shattered disc, he doesn't have full movement of his head, for instance. When weather blows in and the pressure changes, if he sits down for too long, his arms go numb.
Vertigo not only limits what he can do at work, but it also puts him at risk when driving.
Another setback - among still others - is hearing loss, which limits what he can do even at home.
"If I'm pulling weeds in the yard, I can't hear if there's a rattlesnake," he said. "I have a long-distance motorcycle, but what for? I can't use it anymore."
Regardless, he said, he hopes some good comes out of his experience.
Hopefully, he said, he can keep others from facing something similar.
"People need to realize, especially in these plants, you have no control," he said. "It's up to you to fight. This could very easily happen to someone else."