A Ramsey County judge is expected to decide Thursday whether to extend the shutdown of Water Gremlin indefinitely. The White Bear Township, Minn., company makes car battery terminals and fishing weights out of lead. This week, state regulators ordered the plant closed after tests found high levels of the toxic metal in the children of some employees.
State of Minnesota and Ramsey County investigators said the source of the lead was obvious: Workers had brought it home on their shoes and clothing. Surface testing found large amounts of the metal on a floor mat in an employee’s car and in the entryway to the worker’s home.
According to court documents, inspectors found many more problems at the plant itself. Employees were wearing dirty work clothes in their cars, not washing their hands in the break room and eating lunch with lead dust visible on their clothing.
“If you can see that dust on the surface, then you’ve already exceeded the exposure limit,” said Susan Arnold, an industrial hygienist and professor at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health, who is not involved with the Water Gremlin case.
Arnold said lead dust has long been a challenge for manufacturers, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has developed a long list of rules for capturing and containing it.
“You want to be using removal methods so that if any dust escapes your controls, that you are removing the dust from the workplace so that it doesn’t build up, so that it’s not there for someone to get it on their hands.”
The OSHA standards also require employers to provide protective clothing for workers to wear on the shop floor and to ensure that employees wash their hands before heading to lunch.
Randy Kieger, who’s worked at Water Gremlin for 22 years, said those rules are familiar.
“We have hygiene, washing our hands. We have certain clothing we have to wear,” Kieger said. “You’re not supposed to take certain clothing outside of the building, into your cars specifically.”
Kieger was among dozens of workers who protested at the Capitol on Tuesday, demanding that state regulators reopen the plant. Labor and Industry Commissioner Nancy Leppink said she wants Water Gremlin employees back to work as quickly as possible. But she said it’s up to company leaders to provide a safe environment and enforce safety rules.
“There is no evidence that this is the kind of oversight that Water Gremlin had. In fact one of their managers, when we approached them, about the laxness in some of their policies and people bringing their personal cell phones into the production area, his response was, ‘Well, what can you do?’” said Leppink.
Susan Arnold, the industrial hygienist, said controlling a toxin as dangerous as lead requires a safety culture that extends from the CEO to the shop floor.
“You really have to have this comprehensive program. If all you do is rely on the workers to control the exposure, it’s not going to be effective,” she said.
In a statement Tuesday, Water Gremlin vice president Carl Dubois said the company is working cooperatively with government officials.
Water Gremlin already was working with county officials to educate workers when a worker’s child was found to have a dangerously high blood lead level in January. Then on Monday, after a more recent test on another child returned similar results, the Minnesota Departments of Health and Labor and Industry shut down the Water Gremlin facility.
Health officials did not say if the children suffered any specific lead-related illnesses.
But Dr. Stacene Maroushek, a Hennepin Healthcare pediatrician, said lead delays brain development and is linked to many other conditions.
“It can cause problems with kidneys. It can cause problems with their ability to absorb other minerals like calcium and iron, so often they’re very iron deficient as well,” Maroushek said.