Government, Health and the Battery Industry (A long look back)

By Hugh Abner
[46 Years and Counting Manufacturing Batteries and Battery Machinery]

One time years ago when I had the duties of a manufacturing engineer for a British owned American battery company I was assigned the task of accompanying one of our corporate health doctors through visits to our multiple U.S. factories. I had no idea his thing would be mostly after-hours work. As it turned out, though, it was not only interesting, it was fun.

We did the usual day time stuff of inspecting work stations for proper ventilation as per the workers breathing zones, floor cleanliness and the nurse’s medical facilities. The medical records were examined even though copies of these records were on file back in his offices in Europe. It was interesting to me that he did not care too much about the huge ventilation bag houses we had installed outside plus the acid neutralization and heavy metal capture equipment. Actually I was disappointed for they were a big dollar part of my ventilation projects and I had made sure all were being properly operated before his visit. His lack of interest though was never explained to me but now that I have this format in which to write as I saw things I am sure to do so: but we will delay that particular point for now.

The after hours did include visits to the factories during their later shifts and of course it included dinner at some local restaurant. His most desired meal was duck, so, we spent time researching for that specialty. I never did catch on to whatever his big duck interest was for it generally was tasteless to me. Most of our factories were in the southern U.S. where steak and catfish were plentiful along with chicken and bar-b-cue. Anyway, he liked duck and we were on his expense account: so duck it was.

Dinner was not the end to the after hours activities. This doctor had explained to me that for the most part any Pb or leady materials we had seen during the day was never ever going to affect the health of anyone. The problematic stuff is the particles floating around in the air which we could only see at night with a strong beam of light. Very early on in our travels we had visited a Western Auto store and bought a very good outdoorsman type flash-light. It put out a beam almost as good as an automobile light. At that time I kind of knew what he had in mind but I was not prepared for what we were to see.

When we returned to the factory for our late night visits we kept all the bag houses in operation and then after the workers left we turned out all the lights and began our light-beam tour. The air was full of dust particles and they were distributed from floor to ceiling. At the hooded work stations one could see the particles being drawn to and captured just as the design numbers had predicted but before the particles reached the capture zone they floated through the worker’s breathing zone. Did this mean that all the cost and efforts which were put into our bag house driven ventilation systems were a waste? No! What it meant was that only part of the job of cleaning the in-house air was being addressed and the work station capture hoods were bringing into the breathing zones a concentrated portion of floating air particles. The capture hoods were capturing any dust created at that particular station so that was a good thing. He pointed out how much terrible the dust load we were seeing would be if these hooded work stations were not in use. He simply was making the case to support how much more in-house cleaning would be required to work toward the final goal. The final goal was, of course, to reduce the amount of Pb which was entering our worker’s blood.

It was not long after this tour that the factories began having central vacuum systems installed which enabled the workers to capture and clean more of the working areas and to keep the Pb particles from dropping to the floor. Particles on the floor were a huge contributor to the light-beam floating particles. The massive amount of lift-truck traffic which is almost non-stop in a factory is the same as moving about a large fan as it lifts and distributes particles into the above zones. There were many week-end projects established so that workers or outside contractors could come into the factory to wash down all the items in the ceilings such as roof trusses and over-hanging compressed air, gas, water and ventilation piping. All of this is necessary when a war to reduce the worker’s blood-Pb count is undertaken and added to these efforts and cost were many improvements in wash-room facilities.

Well I have written much here and I hate to have to tell you there is much more to come. It might be a good time to for you to take a break. When we continue we are going to go back to the title of this piece and address our government’s involvement.

Let me begin by saying that if you work for one of our country’s huge battery manufacturing corporations then you need to often thank our federal government. There was a time when every community in our country which was more than just a big crossroads had its own battery plant. The theory was that batteries were too heavy for transporting long distances so they needed to be built close to the end-user. The other thing was that the cost for a factory was not that much relative to other manufacturing facilities so the opportunity was great for a factory to be sort of a “mom & pop” organization. This was a good thing in that manner but it was even better for machine manufacturers like FMMW. If a machine maker could come up with a device of interest then literally hundreds would be ordered. Very few of these hundreds would be operated more than a couple of shifts per day or more than 5-1/2 days a week. {This is unlike the 24/7 operations of our corporate giants today}. Even if the machine manufacturer only made Pb-casting molds the orders would again be in the hundreds or even thousands. Jobs were plentiful. The workers health was not much of an issue and some of this was simply because of true ignorance. After all, the moms and pops had worked in these factories and even brought in their children so how could there be a health issue? I DO NOT HAVE AN ANSWER. I just simply have to accept that worker’s health became an issue. Billions have been spent trying to prove yea and nay about the dangers of Pb.

At my level I can only report what happened during the sixties when the government O.S.H.A. and E.P.A. agencies were born. I would be most appreciative to receive the stories of workers that had battery manufacturing health issues. Not because I am going on some campaign. The campaigns have been fought and the health issue has been addressed in a mighty way. My little health story goes like this. I was working the mid-night shift operating 4 Winkle and Wirtz grid casters. I got a nagging stomach ache which lasted for many days. When I reported it I was told that I did not wash my hands enough but if I insisted on it I could go to a doctor. I went and the doctor had me to collect a gallon jug of urine over a week’s time and then to bring it back to him. By the end of the week my ache was gone. Yes, I think I did wash my hands more often. Yes, my Pb blood level was high even for those days. Today one with that high of a level would not be allowed to live within a 100 miles of a battery factory: much less work there. {That was a joke}.

The moms and pops began going away because of government, so again, all the survivors can thank government but we do not thank government do we? No! Government is to be cursed even by those giants which have benefited from it.

My interest for bringing up these old issues comes from recent newsworthy events. In China the government in the past few weeks made news by shutting down several battery factories because of health issues. In this country we have news-hog politicians running for president and claiming the E.P.A., Environmental Protection Agency, has been a destructive force to our country. When I hear such non-sense I think back to all the bag house projects which were results of the powerful E.P.A. Just last week I read where one of our giant battery corporations was settling local health issues by agreeing to replace their low cost bag houses with expensive H.E.P.A filters. So the issue is not that old. In fact it is very much alive and as things politically are going in this country ignorance about worker health issues will be given new life.

Whatever one might say about the increase to the cost of manufacturing due to the powers of the E.P.A can be duplicated by throwing in the powers of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, O.S.H.A. A few years later came The Clean Water Act. This too added to battery manufacturing cost: so what?

It just happens that the “so what?” of all this is big and while it hurt some it benefited others in a big way. If you were a manufacturing level worker for a mom and pop then your job was at risk. If you were the owner of a mom and pop then any dreams you had of passing the business on down the line were at risk. If you were a battery machinery manufacturer then your list of individual customer accounts dwindled from being stored in a large filing cabinet to a list shorter than the one you last took to the grocery store. All of the down side of our government’s power in these matters had and still has offsetting up sides.

The super giant battery manufacturers of today absorbed the mom and pops with substantial transfers of wealth. Mom and pop did quite well even though their workers had to move on to other work. Other work was created: the sheet metal fabricating industry got a big boost manufacturing and installing literally miles of metal duct work and huge metal bag houses. Local electrical and plumbing contractors worked for months in the factories of the survivors due to the increase in shear factory size and the added loads of machinery required by the new government environment protection and health regulations. Factory size cleaning machines became as common as mops and brooms. Even the big surviving corporations downsized some locations but upsized in other locations. They found that by standardizing their products they could add machines, reduce workers and operate on 24/7 schedules. This gave a boost back to the battery machinery industry for the older machines had to be replaced with machines which required less operator knowledge and skills. Nurses began to appear in each factory to monitor and control in house the worker’s blood lead levels. The maintenance departments had to add new categories of skills in order to keep the machine PLC controls in-sync. In short as direct battery manufacturing labor decreased there was substantial increase in indirect support plus support from 2nd and 3rd party resources.

Government health and safety regulations were not aimed specifically at our industry but we were effected big time. Health issues may not be eradicated but they have improved to the point that today it is common to find women as direct labor employees. Yes, there was an issue with women and it was not a small issue. Management was well aware of the dependability and overall better attitudes which women brought to the work force. The bean counters were well aware that they would be less demanding on the payroll departments. They were not allowed because even early on there was an understanding that one of the most cruel health problems associated with Pb was its effect on children. It was understood that children could acquire mental impairments from Pb and women, especially back then, were considered to be so close to the welfare of children that they were considered to be the same in matters of this kind.

In general the points I have made can be traced back to O.S.H.A. for those regulations were powerful inside the confining walls of a given factory. I will never forget the morning when our V.P. of manufacturing called in the engineering department and explained to us that if we were to remain in the battery business we would need to develop a close and personal relationship with an inch thick handbook we were all given: the O.S.H.A. federal handbook. The follow up meetings had interesting hi-lights for as we got deeper the picture of the potential cost seemed overwhelming. We got some relief though when we read the words distinctly. An example comes from the two words; “Shall and Should”. “Shall” was taken to be an absolute directive for action and “Should” gave us some relief. One funny, (that is funny now as in years later), experience I had came from an action which was on my list of “Things to do”. Points of danger had to be labeled in order to hi-light the potential problem area so I ordered many and various labels but there was one which brought the good V.P. out of his chair in one of our meetings. He rose exclaiming loudly – “Hell Abner! We cannot use a sign like that —- the people will not come to work! Forget it! Get rid of them”.

The label was (Poison). We had Pb in many forms throughout the factories and I was headed toward giving them a proper label. Proper for me: not him. There was an out of the way closet back in engineering so the labels rested there for some time but after a few months they were removed to their proper places. Even today though, as in my writing this article, I double check to make sure Pb is still referred to as being poisonous.

Where does E.P.A. come into all this? It is simple and back in the beginning I mentioned something about our English corporate doctor not taking a special interest in our bag houses. His responsibility was to the workers inside. If he were to extend that to the outside he probably could only see a huge and uninviting burden. That is only my speculation. We did capture and contain many particles of poisonous Pb inside but many were directed outside through not only those in the airstreams but the water waste as well. A company that wanted to survive for the future could not ignore what was escaping out to the local community and our company did not. There were not any restrictions on the expense to clean our escaping air and water and we reacted to the E.P.A. as faithfully as we had to O.S.H.A. In fact, all the surviving manufacturers of today did the same and still do.

From my small involvement I have seen much change and much success that has taken place in our country from the past cooperation between our industry and our government.

Now I keep up with the news so I am fully aware that even today we somehow have elected people to levels in government that will jump out of their chairs to shout “Abner, see! Your poison labels sent our jobs away!” I can only repeat from above that I have seen much change and much success. I expect to see more.

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