Cal/OSHA Issues Citations for Serious Health & Safety Violations at Kingspan Factory, With Fines of $39k

Santa Ana Kingspan workers Lucas, left, and Jorge just before filing their complaint with Cal-OSHA on Oct. 15, 2021.

After conducting a six-month inspection, Cal-OSHA has cited Kingspan Light & Air – a subsidiary of global building materials company Kingspan Group – for 24 alleged violations of California’s occupational health and safety code at its Santa Ana skylight factory, including five serious violations, and set fines against the company at $39,145.  Issued on April 14, 2022, the citations and fines become final if Kingspan does not appeal within 15 working days of receipt.   

Kingspan workers filed a complaint with the agency in October 2021 after growing concerned over workplace exposure to the air pollutant PM 2.5.  In the complaint, Kingspan workers stated that they could attest to violations that included “high levels of indoor air pollution, inadequate or non-existent ventilation especially around welding and spray-paint operations, faulty machines, trip and fall hazards in working areas, obstructed eyewash stations, empty eyewash stations which are not filled with water, frequent workplace injuries, repetitive motion injuries, and a lack of proper training around chemical use and injury prevention.”

Researchers estimate exposure to PM 2.5 causes between 85,000 and 200,000 premature deaths each year.  With the assistance of UC-Irvine air pollution scientist Dr. Shahir Masri, Kingspan workers wore and positioned air monitoring devices inside the factory over three workdays while community allies monitored the air in the surrounding neighborhood.  The air monitoring results showed PM 2.5 concentrations inside the factory six to seven times higher than what was measured outdoors. Of eight employees who carried air monitors, five recorded average PM 2.5 concentrations that, if measured outdoors, would rank between “unhealthy” and “very unhealthy” on the EPA’s Air Quality Index.  Some measurements reached the maximum limit of the monitor’s detection ability.

The monitoring results were not surprising to some Kingspan workers, who weld, spray paint, and assemble skylights.  “When you start welding, the material is very dirty. So, it gives off a lot of smoke,” said Mica Pacheco, who works as a welder at the factory. “We have been talking to [Kingspan] for a long time, especially about the extractors we need to get rid of the smoke. But they just say, ‘Later, later, it’s coming.’”

Notably, the Cal-OSHA citations allege that Kingspan broke the law by:

  1. Not keeping records on whether the ventilation systems used to prevent exposure to air pollution were actually effective;
  • Not measuring air pollution workers were exposed to when it was reasonable to suspect illegally high levels;
  • Failing to medically evaluate and fit workers for proper respirators, and then failing to train workers on how to appropriately use the respirators.
  • Failing to keep an up-to-date list of all the hazardous chemicals present in the factory and to train workers on how to safely use them.

Citations alleging serious violations were issued because Kingspan had workers use bench grinders, air-supplied crimper machines, radial arm saws, and circular metal-cutting saws without the appropriate guards and protections.  “Serious” violations under California law are ones where “there is a realistic possibility that death or serious physical harm could result from the actual hazard created by the violation.

Kingspan Workers File Whistleblower Complaint With Calif. Water Resources Control Board

Today, Kingspan employees working at the company’s Santa Ana, Calif., manufacturing plant and the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (SMART), jointly filed a whistleblower complaint against Kingspan Light + Air (“Kingspan”), alleging that the company has been violating the Clean Water Act by not adhering to best management practices.

The complaint calls upon the State Water Resources Control Board, Office of Enforcement (a division of CalEPA), and the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board to investigate Kingspan’s compliance with its Storm Water Pollution Prevention Plan (SWPPP) at its Santa Ana manufacturing facility. The complaint includes allegations that Kingspan instructed workers to use a leaf blower to blow dust and debris, rather than vacuuming it up per the terms of its SWPPP.

SMART is a union that represents sheet metal workers, welders, production employees and more in industries across the United States and Canada. Based on interviews with Kingspan workers, a SMART investigation has revealed that Kingspan has not adhered in enumerated ways to the Best Management Practices (“BMPs”) set out in the SWPPP and associated documents.

Air Monitoring By Kingspan Santa Ana Employees Finds High Levels of Workplace Air Pollution

Following concerns raised by workers at the Kingspan facility in Santa Ana, Calif., workers and community leaders organized and engaged experts in the construction of an air monitoring assessment to measure the levels of air pollution to which Kingspan workers and residents are exposed during the workday.

The assessment focused on measuring airborne particulate matter that is 2.5 micrometers in diameter or smaller, (referred to as PM 2.5), which is less than one-30th the diameter of a human hair. PM 2.5 is widely associated with a range of adverse health conditions, including respiratory and cardiovascular problems, as well as increased mortality and hospital admissions.

“We’re talking about exposures that we incurred [in southern California] due to wildfires being on par with those that workers on the interior of Kingspan are being exposed to.”

UC Irvine Air Pollution Scientist Dr. Shahir Masri

The workers joined forces with the local environmental justice movement and an air pollution scientist at UC Irvine, Dr. Shahir Masri, who trained workers to document air quality issues over three days using specialized air monitoring devices. 

“We’re talking about exposures that we incurred [in southern California] due to wildfires,” said Masri, “being on par with those that workers on the interior of Kingspan are being exposed to.” 

Masri’s analysis found that the average PM 2.5 concentration inside the Kingspan facility was nearly 7-times higher than outdoors (as compared to smoke in wildfire episodes, which often results in a 2- to 4-fold increase in PM 2.5). Of eight employees who carried air monitors, five recorded average PM 2.5 concentrations that, if measured outdoors, would rank between “unhealthy” and “very unhealthy” according to EPA’s Air Quality Index. Some measurements reached the maximum limit of the monitor’s detection ability.

In his report, “Air Pollution Inside Kingspan, Masri notes: “In contrast to larger particles, which can be filtered out by the respiratory tract when inhaled, smaller PM 2.5 particles have the ability to penetrate to the deepest area of the lung—the alveolar region—where gas exchange takes place. This region is not coated with a protective mucus layer, and also takes longer to clear deposited particles, thus allowing for potentially greater health effects.

Manufacturing industries, including their combustion sources, are a significant source of air pollution in communities of color, with high PM 2.5 levels accounting for between 85,000 and 200,000 premature deaths each year. The Kingspan report is one of the first attempts by workers themselves to measure air quality levels inside a factory. 

Kingspan prides itself on its “Planet Passionate” programs designed to “protect the natural environment,” and is headquartered in Ireland, with 166 factories around the world and 15,500 employees. It had global sales of $5.5 billion in 2020. The company’s profit has increased every year since 2008, reaching $600 million in trading profit in 2020 despite COVID-19.  

The report concludes that the “findings suggest the need for ongoing air monitoring both inside and outside of the Kingspan facility so as to better characterize the long-term air pollution concentrations to which workers and community members may be exposed and to allow for adequate follow-up evaluation following the implementation of mitigation measures.”