Selma, Ala., Hyundai supplier Renosol Seating said employees who say or do things it deems harmful to its business may be fired, despite an April 15 federal court order barring the company from retaliating against whistleblowers who voice concerns over their exposure to chemicals that may be making them sick.
“If they go so far as to violate company policy and say and do things that are harmful to the company, then yes, they could be terminated,” Mel Stephens, a spokesman for Renosol’s parent company, Lear Corp., told the Montgomery Advertiser. “They are free to express themselves up until they cross the line.”
Renosol manufactures foam seats for Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Alabama, its sole customer. Renosol’s manufacturing process involves a chemical called toluene diisocyanate, or TDI, which can create asthma and other respiratory distress in workers exposed to it over the long term.
TDI is the chemical Kim King and other Renosol workers say is making them sick. They point to tests administered by Yale University researchers that found TDI antibodies in the blood samples of five of 17 Renosol workers tested.
Renosol and Lear maintain that the seat-manufacturing plant complies with federal safety regulations, but the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) found TDI levels within the Selma plant to be “problematic.” OSHA regulators also cited Renosol for violations involving the workers’ direct, unprotected physical exposure to TDI and fined the company $7,000.
Some safety experts warn that OSHA’s regulations are outdated and inadequate, leaving regulators nearly powerless to take meaningful action.
Peter Dooley of the National Council for Occupational Health told the Montgomery Advertiser that for decades he has seen the “devastating” toll TDI takes on plant workers around the world, largely due to workplace safety regulations that have failed to keep pace with knowledge about industrial chemicals and their effects on factory workers exposed to them.
“The OSHA limits have been stuck in time for 45 years, for the most part,” Mr. Dooley told the Advertiser. “When it comes to chemical exposures and health hazards, the standards and citations and penalties are much lower than they are for (physical) safety-related things.”
The outdated chemical regulations effectively allow companies like Renosol to expose their workers to levels of toxins that are potentially devastating to their health, without fear of penalties or any corrective actions.
The same out-of-date regulations also allow companies to be in compliance with safety rules and standards while disregarding concerns of workers who are being poisoned by long-term exposure to industrial chemicals.
According to the Advertiser, Renosol says the workers are “engaging in baseless scare tactics as part of an orchestrated push by an [autoworkers union] to gain a foothold in Alabama’s rapidly growing auto industry.”