Sara Heppner-Waldston
An artistic rendering of Cook's presentation.

AIHce 2013: Public Records Bring Safety Concerns to the Surface

May 21, 2013
A reporter who investigated potential diacetyl exposure and other occupational health and safety concerns at a flavoring company discusses the impact public records can have on workplace safety.

At a time when many newspapers are eliminating labor and environmental beats to cut costs, public access to stories involving workplace safety issues may be at risk. During his May 21 Upton Sinclair Memorial Lecture at the American Industrial Hygiene Conference and Expo (AIHce) in Montreal, Tony Cook, a reporter for the Indianapolis Star, discussed the impact public records and journalism can have on workplace safety.

In the summer of 2012, Cook began investigating the Sensient Flavors plant in Indianapolis based on a court ruling surrounding the company’s attempt to appeal Indiana OSHA’s (IOSHA) anticipatory search warrant. Sensient, Cook said, was a target for investigation because of concerns surrounding exposure to diacetyl, a flavoring agent associated with a permanent and potentially fatal lung condition called popcorn lung. After Cook researched diacetyl and some civil lawsuits involving worker exposure, he followed his instincts and investigated deeper.

“If workers were being hurt, I knew this could be a big story, and an important one,” he said.

Cook’s work on this story, however, proved frustrating. His many attempts to speak directly to Sensient production workers led to dead ends when these employees refused to talk, perhaps out of fear of being fired or reprimanded. Sensient, meanwhile, refused to respond to Cook’s inquiries.

“It was the first case where I called a company I was investigating and got no response whatsoever, not even a call back to say ‘no comment,’” he said. “[It was] total and complete radio silence.”

The Role of Public Records in Safety

In the end, it was public records that saved the day for Cook and helped him write his award-winning Indianapolis Star article. Through the public records, Cook learned that NIOSH had conducted a health hazard evaluation of Sensient, which found that roughly one-third of the company’s production workers had abnormal lung function and abnormal rates of decline over time.

Cook also obtained copies of IOSHA safety orders that revealed workers were exposed to up to 400 times ACGIH’s safe level of diacetyl. Sensient, meanwhile, had accused NIOSH and IOSHA of trying to conduct unlawful searches.

Finally, Cook discovered that IOSHA had conducted interviewed with Sensient employees. In the public of pages of interviews he obtained, however, much of the information was redacted by Sensient. He was able to glean employee reports surrounding various health concerns including bronchitis, shortness of breath, coughing and wheezing; various spills and fires; exposure to a “big yellow cloud” of solid yellow; hazardous vendor labels replaced with less-hazardous Sensient labels; and an employee reporting he was diagnosed with spots on his lungs.

The Story's Impact

Cook’s article was well received by many readers who sympathized with the workers, but his work wasn’t done yet. He proceeded to contact some of Sensient’s customers, including Starbucks and Campbell Soup, and pointed them toward some of the public documents. Cook credits these documents with encouraging Starbucks and Campbell Soup to respond quickly; both companies pledged to launch their own investigations into Sensient’s working conditions, and Starbucks ceased doing business with Sensient while looking into the matter.

Workers later confirmed that Starbucks personnel had visited the plant, and Campbell Soup and Starbucks both claimed they had secured a commitment for safety upgrades at the plant. (Cook was unable to access any details regarding those safety improvements.)

“The public records were key to getting results from this story,” Cook stressed, and shared with AIHce attendees two important lessons:

1. Public records are important for worker safety.

2. A healthy relationship with the media can translate to a healthy work environment for employees.

“As you can probably tell, this was not an easy story to report. It was frustrating, full of dead ends,” Cook said. “[But] shedding light on these kinds of issues makes a big difference.”

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