Safety Violations at Imerys Group's Alabama Mining Operations Prompt Strong Words from PACE Union

The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) has issued 53 citations to multinational mineral giant Imerys Group after a Jan. 3 inspection of its Sylacauga, Ala., mining operations, fueling union complaints that the Paris-based company is flouting U.S. labor and safety laws.

"The company has very little regard for the workers in the [Sylacauga] plant," said Joe Drexler, director of special projects for the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International (PACE) Union. "That includes their rights as union members and their health and safety. I think the two go together."

PACE, which represents workers at Imerys Group's Sylacauga and Dry Branch, Ga., facilities, on Feb. 11 issued a news release saying it has launched a Web site, http://www.imerys-solidarity.org, dedicated solely to "the abuse of workers' rights by Imerys." When interviewed by Occupational Hazards.com in early February, Drexler said a "global campaign" against the company was imminent in order to convince Imerys Group to "respect U.S. labor and U.S. health and safety laws."

PACE has filed several complaints with the National Labor Relations Board over the past year accusing Imerys Carbonates LLC -- Imerys Group's U.S. subsidiary, which operates the Alabama mine -- of union-busting activities, and a hearing before an administrative law judge is scheduled for April 10 in the board's Birmingham office.

'Campaign of harassment'

A statement issued by Imerys Group touts its safety record at Sylacauga -- which includes a 2001 Sentinel of Safety Award from MSHA and the National Mining Association -- while assailing PACE for what the company calls "an ongoing campaign of harassment against Imerys."

"We believe this 'corporate campaign' is being waged by PACE in an effort to retaliate against the company because many Sylacauga employees voted to decertify the union and in a misguided attempt to bolster the union's strength for upcoming contract negotiations for the plant in Dry Branch, Ga.," the statement says.

According to Drexler, about 400 people are employed at Imerys Group's Sylacauga operations, which include a mine and mill that produce calcium carbonate -- crushed marble -- for the paper industry. Imerys Group, according to its Web page, operates 290 manufacturing and commercial sites in 38 countries and divides its business interests into four groups: specialty minerals; paper pigments; refractories and abrasives; and building materials.

19 violations were serious and substantial

Of the 53 citations issued to Imerys by MSHA, 14 were related to machine guarding, nine were for mobile equipment, eight were for electrical-related violations and six were for health overexposures, including overexposure to noise and airborne contaminants, according to information provided by MSHA spokesperson Suzy Bohnert. Other categories in which MSHA issued citations were safe access, housekeeping, workplace examinations, personal protective equipment, warning signs and highwall.

The fines for the 53 citations haven't been determined, Bohnert said.

According to MSHA, 19 of the 53 violations were considered serious and substantial by MSHA criteria, meaning that the violations are likely to cause serious injury or illness, according to the agency. The Jan. 3 inspection, however, was considered "routine" by the agency and was MSHA's first inspection at Sylacauga since Sept. 2, 2004, Bohnert said.

In 2004, there were 37 accidents requiring lost workdays or restricted duty at the Sylacauga operations, according to data on MSHA's Web site, http://www.msha.gov. The agency last year issued 32 citations, five of them serious and substantial, to the Sylacauga operations and a total of 218 citations to the Sylacauga plant from 2000 to 2004.

Imerys in third year of safety program

While the company acknowledges "safety issues will arise in an industrial and mining environment," Imerys Group is in the third year of an "improved safety program" at its North American operations that has resulted in a 20-percent reduction in lost-time accidents at Sylacauga, according to the statement. The company also claims it has seen a 22-percent drop in MSHA violations since the campaign began.

"Imerys takes all MSHA findings very seriously, and Imerys has a long history of positive cooperation with MSHA," the statement says. "We are carefully investigating the recent citations and Imerys will take appropriate action on every citation. Importantly, the majority of cited violations were corrected on the same day as the inspection."

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