A renewable-energy company is allegedly getting workers sick and firing them

Not so clean, some former employees say.
Not so clean, some former employees say.
Image: Joshua Lott/Reuters
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Renewable energy is often hailed as the answer to the scourge of Big Bad Coal. The battle is cast as the savior for our climate-change woes vs. a filthy archaic energy source that will lead us to global apocalypse. The fossil-fuel industry is stacked with dirty players, the script goes, and the wind and solar world is filled with employers who take care of their workers.

Allegations in a new investigation by the Des Moines Register, published this week, turn that narrative on its head. Arizona-based TPI Composites, which describes itself the largest U.S.-based independent manufacturer of wind-turbine blades, is accused of exposing employees to toxic chemicals without proper safety practices and firing them once those chemicals made them sick. TPI has disputed each of the claims and says lawsuits from six former employees “are without merit.”

The details of the workers’ claims

The six former employees of TPI’s Newton, Iowa factory have sued the company, citing chemical injuries. One of them, Zarpka “Patience” Green, a 36-year-old refugee from Liberia, now suffers from contact dermatitis, a skin inflammation so severe that she avoids layered clothing and can’t sleep at night. Green says she contracted the condition from applying epoxy resin to the insides of turbine blades. In federally mandated disclosures, the manufacturers of the resin warn of possible skin, eye, and respiratory irritation, as well as negative impacts on the reproductive system. The day she was diagnosed, she says, the factory fired her from her job.

The Register reports Green has alleged that TPI perpetuated a “systematic practice of hiring healthy employees and then terminating them from employment after their employees sustained a chemical injury.” Her suit alleges gross negligence, breach of contract, and fraud. In a risk-assessment report, Mary Finn, a West Des Moines industrial-hygiene expert hired by Green’s attorney, wrote, “Ms. Green was not afforded personal protective equipment and clothing that provided sufficient protection from excessive exposure to chemical substances.”

How TPI has responded

TPI has rejected Green’s claims in court filings, saying “TPI Iowa could not safely accommodate Green’s allergy because epoxy resin is prevalent throughout the TPI facility and thus her employment at TPI Iowa could not continue.”

In an email to Quartz, a TPI spokesperson added:  “We take matters of health and safety very seriously and work extremely hard to ensure we are always following best practices in all aspects of our advanced composites manufacturing. A small number of our candidates demonstrate allergic reactions that prevent them from working with or around epoxy resin. Though we are unable to discuss details relating to ongoing litigation, in each of these cases, we have substantive disagreements on the facts and believe the record will show that the claims against TPI are without merit.”

What state records show

According to Iowa’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration logs, more than 300 dermatitis outbreaks and chemical burns from resin, fiberglass, and dust debris have been recorded at TPI’s Newton plant during its first nine years through 2016, the Register reports. Company officials say the plant employs about 1,100 people and has a turnover rate among first-year employees as high as 95 percent.

Former employees said the company knew about these outbreaks for years, but its leaders didn’t change their behavior. They continued to issue gloves, paper masks, and paper suits that one workplace-safety expert said offered inadequate protection. Green said the epoxy resin she worked with would soak through her protective suit and stain her clothes. Iowa OSHA logs also recorded several other reports of the resin soaking through. Despite the record of repeated skin injuries, OSHA never penalized TPI.

After hearing Green’s and TPI’s arguments, Iowa’s deputy workers-compensation commissioner ordered the company to pay Green $11,100 in healing-period benefits and an additional $72,375 in permanent partial- disability benefits. In her suit, Green still seeks compensation for lost earnings, interest, and emotional distress, as well as for attorneys’ fees.