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Safety Consultant Turns Whistleblower in 'Travesty Waiting to Happen'

This company's safety practices were so appalling that the independent consultant they hired started recording his conversations with plant management.

Mid-America Steel Drum is a 55-gallon drum refurbishing operation that processes large chemical containers for scrap or reuse. The company has six U.S. plants that perform this process, three of which are in the Milwaukee area.

Last week, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that community members who live in proximity to one of the plants are complaining, and have been for years, of noxious odors that compromise their quality of life and perhaps even impact their health.

Interesting further is the prologue to this story: a few weeks back the Journal Sentinel published a special report, based on its own investigation, accusing the business of brazenly endangering workers inside the plant.

Many of these accusations initially came to light when the company hired a team of safety consultants to help them comply with federal regulations. The safety manager, a man named Steele Johns, candidly spoke to the advisors about the significant concerns he had with the safety practices – the results of which, across the company’s six facilities, have been chemical and heat-related burns, injuries from exploding barrels, breathing difficulties and other health problems – even a worker death.

Since regulations warrant that an inch or less of remaining fluid is considered empty, places like Mid-America Steel Drum often find themselves draining small amounts of chemicals into collection drums – this could be anything from acid or peroxide to who knows what else. Former workers claim they were dumping barrel residue into 275-gallon drums, without separating them to prevent potentially volatile chemical reactions. Johns called the procedures a “travesty waiting to happen” but said management refused to take his concerns seriously.

And personal risk to employees was just one side of the coin. Mid-America plants have been cited repeatedly for dumping mercury in the wastewater. Johns said at the Milwaukee plant he’d even seen chemical residue washed down a floor drain. Sometimes workers would put the most foul-smelling barrels outside to let chemicals evaporate into the air.

After hearing and seeing enough, one of the safety consultants secretly began recording the exchange on his iPhone and eventually blew the whistle on the company. The consultant, Will Kramer, said he couldn’t ignore what he saw at the plants, and wasn’t going to let a nondisclosure contract keep him from doing what he thought was right.

Luckily for neighboring community, the whistleblower suit has put pressure on the company by state and federal legislators demanding action and now not only are OSHA and the EPA investigating, but the Department of Justice is too.

Editor's Note: Grief/Mid-America Steel Drum (MASD) responded to our story, claiming the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporting was riddled with outdated information and speculation. We granted the company the opportunity to provide a statement in their defense --

"Greif facilities, including CLCM, are safe. We continue to invest in safety protocols, equipment and training and the well-being of the neighborhoods where we operate.

Given that broader context, these are the facts concerning Greif’s CLCM drum reconditioning facilities:

• At all of Greif’s facilities, including the CLCM joint venture reconditioning plants, the company works closely with local, state and federal officials to ensure the health, safety and environmental protection of its workers and the local community.

• Greif and CLCM have undertaken significant management process improvements at the reconditioning facilities to ensure full compliance with all applicable regulations.

• To improve the safety of our workplaces and employees, CLCM has invested more than $2 million in capital improvements in its facilities since 2014 and more than $1M since 2016.

• Each month, awareness and compliance safety training is conducted onsite for all CLCM employees. In 2016, we conducted approximately 34,000 hours of safety training at CLCM and will increase that in 2017.

Furthermore, the specific allegations leveled at MASD were addressed in Steele Johns public statement regarding MJS reporting:

The relevant portion of that statement follow:

'These are the facts:

• Greif paid a third party to come into our facility and evaluate the safety programs and the facility.

• During that audit, one of the auditors recorded our confidential conversations without my knowledge to use later for his own personal agenda.

• The information offered to the auditors was as open and factual as I understood the facts to be so that all opportunities for improvement could be completely identified.

• Areas where I saw issues and gaps were shared as completely as I could with anecdotal stories, as I understood them, to illustrate my points.

• Following the audit, a report was issued that clearly identified gaps and opportunities.

• During the 16 months since the audit, not only that site, but the entire CLCM safety program has been changed and improved on multiple fronts.

• These changes include - programs, processes, training, physical corrections to the facility and an increase in employee involvement and participation.

Changes in management of the organization have also occurred – leadership within the manufacturing organization has changed, a full-time EHS manager reporting directly to the Greif Safety Director now has responsibility for the reconditioning region, and, additional corporate EHS support is now available where it was not prior to the leadership changes.

A look back at the facility from September of 2015 to today shows a vastly different picture. A comparison of the audit findings from then to an examination today would reveal that the audit process has worked. Gaps were identified and sustainable corrections have been made.

While there continues to be room for improvement in our programs, our employees work in safe conditions with good training and the proper equipment to perform their tasks.

Far from being a story of failure, this is a story of success.'”

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