Report Calls for Inquiry into Alleged EHS Hazards at Prison Recycling Facilities

Despite assurances from the Federal Bureau of Prisons that the agency has taken steps to protect workers in its recycling facilities from exposure to toxic materials, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel is calling for an independent investigation into the bureau's recycling operations nationwide.

The Office of Special Counsel, which is the federal agency that looks into whistleblower complaints, called the findings of a Bureau of Prisons internal investigation into alleged EHS hazards at its Atwater, Calif., recycling facility "unreasonable."

"Moreover, the agency's reports appear to rely on strained interpretations of applicable rules and procedures in order to justify past actions in connection with [Federal Prison Industries Inc.] recycling facilities, and the agency's investigation into conditions in recycling facilities at other [bureau] institutions appears to have been cursory at best," wrote Matthew Glover with the Office of Special Counsel's Disclosure Unit, in a letter to the attorney for Leroy Smith Jr., the whistleblower in the case.

Smith filed a whistleblower complaint with the Office of Special Counsel alleging hazardous conditions at the bureau's Atwater recycling facility and other prison recycling facilities. His allegations also include charges that prison management repeatedly ignored his warnings and requests to take appropriate safety measures against those hazards.

Allegations of Exposure to Toxic Metals

According to the Bureau of Prisons, approximately 117 convicted inmates and eight federal employees work at the bureau's computer-recycling facility at its Atwater penitentiary. As part of the recycling process, workers use handheld hammers to dismantle glass cathode ray tubes in a specially designed glass-breaking booth.

According to Smith, the former safety manager at the penitentiary, the process of breaking the glass tubes emits hazardous metals such as lead, cadmium, barium and beryllium. Smith's complaint alleges that inmate workers and civilian staff members at Atwater were exposed to these metals without adequate safeguards and above OSHA limits. Smith also contends that recycling workers at federal prisons in Elkton, Ohio, Texarkana, Texas, and La Tuna, Texas, similarly have been exposed to dangerous levels of hazardous materials.

Smith charges that the Bureau of Prisons denied his repeated recommendations for an EHS risk assessment to be conducted prior to the Atwater recycling facility opening in April 2002.

Once the facility opened, Smith alleges that he shut down glass-breaking operations numerous times from June 2002 through January 2004 after air sampling equipment showed the presence of dangerous levels of lead and/or cadmium in the glass-breaking area.

However, Smith contends that management at Atwater and the Federal Prison Industries abused their authority by repeatedly ordering the facility to start up again without implementing the safety measures he prescribed and without the written approval of the safety department.

"Ultimately, Mr. Smith alleged that this cycle of testing, suspension of operations and reactivation continued until January 2004, when [Federal Prison Industries] finally implemented engineering changes in the glass-breaking area sufficient to reduce lead and cadmium exposure to below OSHA action levels," Glover explained in his letter and report to Smith's attorney.

Smith also alleges that the food service area inside the recycling factory was exposed to toxic materials, since the area was located approximately 20 feet away from production areas and the wall separating it from production areas did not go all the way to the ceiling. If such an allegation were true, it would be a violation of OSHA 29 CFR 1910.141(g)(2), which prohibits workers from eating or drinking in an area exposed to a toxic material.

Smith's whistleblower complaint prompted former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft to instruct Director of the Bureau of Prisons Harley Lappin to conduct an internal investigation of the bureau's recycling facilities.

Prison Bureau Report: OSHA Violations Were Committed

The prison bureau, in two reports issued in 2005, concluded that the Atwater recycling facility violated OSHA standards for exposure to lead and cadmium during the first few months of the facility's operation.

The facility also violated OSHA standards by failing to provide appropriate respiratory protection, failing to provide appropriate change rooms, showers and lunchroom facilities and failing to provide appropriate employee training, information and signage, among other violations, according to the bureau's reports.

As for Smith's charge that similar hazards and violations exist at other recycling facilities at federal prisons, the prison bureau's investigation found that such a conclusion is "reasonable," although "there was insufficient evidence to establish this."

The prison bureau's reports also conclude that that its recycling facilities now are up to snuff, safetywise.

"In sum, [Federal Prison Industries] and safety personnel appear to have taken the appropriate steps to ensure factories are operating safely and that they are in compliance with all applicable regulations and standards," the bureau says.

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