Cleanup safety flawed

At least four workers at the toxic chemicals site in Mapua could have been made sick from working on the cleanup and they may suffer further work-related health problems, a report has revealed.

The Environment Ministry, as the main resource consent holders of the project, has accepted the report, and says it is taking steps to offer workers medical assessments.

The controversial $12 million cleanup finished five years ago and the four workers interviewed in the report have been waiting four years for acknowledgement of their health issues.

The Environment Ministry is also taking steps to contact others who worked at the site, previously considered New Zealand's most toxic, and offer them health checks. Thirty people are believed to have worked at the project.

The Nelson Mail was given a draft copy of the Department of Labour's report on the health and safety of workers during the controversial cleanup of the Fruitgrowers Chemical Company site ahead of its official release next week.

The long overdue report, written by Otago University associate professor in occupational health David McBride, was first promised at the end of 2008. However, workers first raised concerns about their health from working at the cleanup six years ago.

The report was ordered in 2008 after Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Jan Wright investigated the cleanup and said contaminants may have been inadvertently released during the cleanup.

Dr McBride said the cleanup used "novel remedial" technology and took place on a site contaminated with numerous significant hazards.

He said the cleanup was a complex situation requiring experienced management in a specialised field which the Environment Ministry had little or no experience of.

The contractor carrying out the cleanup, Environmental Decontamination Limited, also had little experience with health and safety matters, Dr McBride said.

The cleanup did not have an adequate health and safety plan and "overall, there appeared to be a lack of commitment to health and safety".

The most serious consequence was a failure to carry out a comprehensive hazard identification plan and plan measures to control those risks at the site. Some hazards went unrecognised for some time, Dr McBride said. "As a result, workers were exposed to a range of potentially toxic substances including volatilised pesticides, dioxins and benzene."

As the project progressed, concerns about more hazards from exposure to chemicals and dioxins were raised but they were not addressed or monitored.

Dr McBride said a serious harm accident was not reported to the Labour Department and pre-employment medicals and baseline biological testing were not available at the project's start.

"Several workers' exit medicals identified symptoms consistent with exposure to site hazards but they did not receive medical follow up, and not all the workers received an exit medical."

The report concludes that all practicable steps to protect workers were not taken and it "was possible the health of at least four workers was affected to some degree".

"There were opportunities for adverse exposures to occur. Future work-related health effects cannot be ruled out."

He said the chemicals found on site were a plausible cause of some, but not all, of these health effects.

Monitoring of employees did not reveal exposure to major chemicals of interest, however the report said the nature of monitoring meant some exposures went unrecognised and were not tested for.

Due to the information gaps it was impossible to carry out a full assessment of worker exposure, it said.

Environment Ministry deputy secretary Andrew Crisp said the ministry was calling the companies that employed workers on the site during the remediation to ask them to contact their people to offer the medical assessment.

There were about 30 people who worked on the site, he said.

A spokesman for the Labour Department said it would act where required on Dr McBride's report.

"The Guidelines on Clean-Up of Contaminated Sites are already being updated and the department will consider how best it can work with other agencies in such situations in the future."

The spokesman said the lessons in the report were for employers and contract holders to ensure they provided workers with a safe working environment.

What they did and how their health suffered:

DRYER OPERATOR

This worker said before shifts started it was common to see dead birds in the dryer area – where the contaminated soil was heated during the cleaning process – and outside on the plant's concrete pad. His job was to open the door of the dryer and unblock the inlet by shovelling it out several times a day. He was "knocked down" or collapsed several times while doing this. He said it was a very dusty job and when the dryer was operating it was common to see "steam-like emissions" coming from the dryer's seal along with dust emissions.

He also had to clean at the end of the day when the fans were shut off and said emissions would come back through the dryer at this time.

The worker also reported occasional exposure to what seemed big quantities of pesticides, on one occasion he noted a "big lump of blue stuff" in the in-feed to the plant.

No personal or environmental monitoring was performed in the dryer area or for this worker.

The dryer operator was a qualified welder and materials on the machinery he worked on may have vapourised, the report notes.

He did not wear respiratory protection while welding and his overalls, which were flammable, once caught fire. He asked for, but was not given, cotton overalls.

Emissions from the plant caused him to experience dizziness and respiratory problems, including "air hunger" when he could not catch his breath.

He also experienced headaches, sinus problems, tingling, fatigue, visual disturbances, poor memory, musculoskeletal pains and a cough. He has ongoing health problems and has been unable to work. He worked at the plant for three years.

His entry medical was normal but his exit medical noted several abnormalities.

PLANT ENGINEER

He had two episodes of collapse at the plant, one requiring hospital admission. He subsequently experienced a range of complaints including headaches, tingling, nausea, slurred speech, irritability, localised alopecia and weakness on the left side. He was off sick for three weeks following the collapse which led him to be hospitalised. His health is now reported as reasonably good, but he was not provided with an exit medical.

LABORATORY WORKERS

They worked in a converted shipping container off site, which did not have any laboratory standard extraction or air replacement systems, despite having almost constant exposure to solvents.

Ventilation of the lab was provided by opening its door and window which in turn allowed the emissions from the plant's smoke stack and reactor and contaminated dust into the lab.

The lab workers sampled and tested unprocessed and processed soil samples, some of which were still hot and had a strong chemical odour, to check for organochlorine pesticide levels.

Soils with high pesticide levels were handled several times a day, the samples had a strong odour and the solvent smell was noticeable on their clothes at the end of the day.

Initially workers were not offered personal protective equipment, and gloves used were latex which were not suitable for handling solvents.

They had to visit the site several times a day to pick up samples, which meant walking right into plant emissions and plant pad with no protective gear.

Lab technicians were offered respirators after they were diagnosed with illness in 2006, but they were not given any training on how to use them and one respirator was later found to be too big.

Both lab workers got sick when working at the plant and were in good health when they started.

Both had fatigue, malaise and hypothyrodism, cystitis and neurological symptoms. One worker was there for two years eight months, the other for two years.

The Nelson Mail