Employees file complaint with Cal/OSHA about conditions at insulated panels plant

MODESTO, CALIF. — Seven workers from Kingspan Insulated Panel’s Modesto facility filed a complaint with the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) on Wednesday, September 6, 2023. They allege exposure to insulation dust and hazardous chemicals, unsanitary conditions due to an indoor infestation of pigeons, a history of inadequate training for hazardous materials, and a lack of personal protective equipment, among other complaints.

“On one occasion, a chemical was spilled out. And the smell was very strong all over the department. I was actually having a headache, because it was so strong,” said Kingspan Modesto worker Celina Arellano. “When a chemical is spilled out, they must evacuate us, because it’s very strong, and they didn’t do anything. . . they kept running the line.”

On September 22nd, a group of concerned supporters of workers at the facility, including Modesto Vice Mayor Chris Ricci and members of the multi-denominational non-profit Faith in Action, visited the plant to discuss the allegations, but company management refused to dialogue with the group.

A year ago, Cal/OSHA fined Kingspan $21,785 for 22 violations of the health and safety code after workers at the company’s Santa Ana, Calif., factory filed a complaint. Cal/OSHA’s findings included five serious violations, which means that the agency found “a realistic possibility that death or serious physical harm could result from the actual hazard created by the violation.”

The Modesto factory produces QuadCore insulated panels for the $15 billion global Kingspan Group and is prominently featured in the company’s “Planet Passionate” program. The “sustainable” facility is covered in solar panels, but the working conditions described in the complaint show a different side of the operation.

QuadCore insulation foam core is made of isocyanate (MDI) and other proprietary chemicals. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) warns that “Workers exposed to MDI may develop serious or fatal respiratory disease.” At least one worker who signed the complaint is experiencing symptoms associated with MDI exposure, including cough, headaches, throat and nasal irritation. This worker also alleges they have not been informed or given training regarding the chemicals in use.

The state of California requires extensive training, ventilation, and respiratory protection for workers who handle isocyanates, including MDI. It also requires employers to inform workers about the serious health effects that may result from exposure to MDI. Kingspan Modesto workers allege they have not been informed of risks of exposure to MDI, nor other hazardous chemicals that may be in use. Warning signs outside a room where chemicals are kept are only in English, even though a sizable portion of the workforce primarily speaks Spanish.

The complaint also alleges inadequate ventilation for the cutting of plastic insulation boards, resulting in high levels PM10 dust (particulate matter 10 micrometers or less in diameter). The California Air Resource Board (CARB) has identified short-term exposures to PM10 as associated with worsening of respiratory diseases leading to hospitalization and ER visits. Workers have complained to Kingspan management about the levels of dust in the air.

“There’s dust flying everywhere,” says one worker. “There’s machines that are supposed to catch it but… the filters are so, so dirty… They blow with the air hoses to clean under the machines, and people will start coughing and stuff… You can feel it right away, the itchiness, the coughing. And you go on break, you blow your nose, and you can see it all in there.”

Cal/OSHA conducted an approximately four-hour unannounced inspection in Modesto on Friday, September 15, 2023.