Unacceptable Asbestos Levels Forces Factory Closure

During an intense cold snap in Michigan during the last week of January, asbestos contamination was discovered in an aging General Motors facility in the town of Wyoming. The frigid temperatures and high winds caused window caulking to become brittle, after which it began to flake off of window frames located in the stamping plant’s tool-and-die area. The plant, located on 36th street in this suburb of Grand Rapids, was constructed over 70 years ago. Use of asbestos-containing materials in everything from ceiling tiles to insulation and pipe lagging was common practice in building construction prior to 1980. When concern was expressed over the issue, plant management collected six samples of the caulking, which were sent to a local lab for testing. The tests came back positive: one-third of the samples showed potentially hazardous levels of asbestos present.

On 1 February, 14 second-shift workers were sent home before their shifts had ended in order to allow asbestos-abatement workers to enter the site and clean up the material. Weekend overtime was also cancelled for between 50 and 100 employees so that asbestos contractors could construct containment areas from plastic sheeting in accordance with standard operating procedures. During the abatement process, no GM employees will be permitted to enter the contaminated area during the abatement process. Those whose duties required them to be in those areas have been re-assigned to positions in other areas of the factory on a temporary basis until the asbestos abatement has been completed. Despite GM management’s concern over possible employee exposure, a representative from the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration indicated that factory’s asbestos problem did not constitute a major health hazard. Whether GM is primarily concerned with employee health and safety or merely trying to avoid future lawsuits over asbestos from employees, GM management is to be commended for taking swift action in order to protect their employees’ health in the presence of a potentially deadly toxin.