Ponderay Newsprint workers at paper mill in Usk, Washington, picket location over health, safety concerns, voice opinions on new website
October 26, 2011
– Ponderay Newsprint Company workers who work at a paper mill in Usk are speaking out about their health and safety concerns this week through a new website (www.PonderayWorkersAtRisk.org) and an early morning picket line and rally on Thursday, October 27 at the mill.
Operations Technician James LeBlanc had two of his friends die as a result of workplace injuries at Ponderay paper mill, in 1995 and 2003. He had a nearly fatal on-the-job accident in 1993 as well. "I shattered my shoulder and had 2nd and 3rd degree burns over 60% of my body. Doctors said I might not make it. Prior to my accident, I informed my supervisor the system was unsafe and needed proper steam piping engineering," he said.
Liz Coon works at Ponderay and worries about long-term exposure to chemicals like carcinogenic dyes and biocides that kill bugs and can burn human tissue.
Ponderay worker George Wallis said, "People get burned, objects in their eyes, back injuries. We continue to have accidents and injuries. Management says that safety needs to improve, but until we start working together to address the real causes, we're not going to be as safe as we should be."
All paper mills are potentially dangerous places. Workers at Ponderay produce newsprint paper, operating machinery that is three stories high, a block long, running at 55 mph. In addition to the two workers who have died from workplace accidents, Ponderay workers have reported head or eye injuries, hearing loss, burns from caustic agents or welding slag, heat exhaustion and other serious injuries. Ponderay's injury rate was 27% greater than the national average for newsprint mills in 2009.
Many frontline Ponderay workers have been with the mill since it opened in 1989. A few years ago, Ponderay workers banded together to have a strong voice on safety and health and other issues by voting to join the Association of Western Pulp and Paper Workers. Earlier this year, Ponderay workers went on strike for five days. A key issue was management's new requirement that workers participate in fire brigade and Emergency Medical Technician teams that historically were voluntary. Workers said they did not want to fill these risky roles, under duress, without adequate management support.
Ponderay is owned by a partnership including three newspaper companies that use its newsprint: McClatchy, Gannett and MediaNews Corp. AbitibiBowater Inc., a Canadian forest products company, is the managing partner.
Visuals: Ponderay workers will be picketing 5:30 a.m., Thursday, Oct. 27, 2011, in front of the Ponderay mill at 422767 SR 20, in Usk, Washington; www.PonderayWorkersAtRisk.org goes live then.