Upton Sinclair Memorial Lecture Stresses Importance of Public Records for Worker Safety

Posted May 21, 2013

By Kay Bechtold

Montreal—Reporter Tony Cook of the Indianapolis Star is no stranger to frustrating days on the job. While trying every angle he could think of to speak with workers for a story on occupational exposures to diacetyl and other hazardous chemicals at Sensient Flavors, a food and beverage plant in Indianapolis, Ind., he attempted to flag down motorists on the street and even visited a local bar—this after being asked to leave plant property and not return. Cook’s investigative story earned him this year’s Upton Sinclair Memorial Award for Outstanding EHS Investigative Reporting. He shared the tale of his investigation with AIHce attendees on Tuesday during the 13th Annual Upton Sinclair Memorial Lecture.

On his out-of-the-ordinary tactics to land interviews with manufacturing employees who worked in the plant, Cook explained, “I was trying to fill a gap in my story. A great story needs to include the perspective of those who have been impacted.” One worker he managed to talk to told him, “A few years ago some people talked to the press and they all got fired.” The local Sensient Flavors plant did not respond to Cook’s inquiries about chemical exposures at the facility, and the corporate office in Milwaukee was equally silent. Cook realized that he would have to “find another way into the story,” and turned to public records to continue his investigation. “I began chasing down a long, long paper trail,” he said.

Within the file that had originally tipped off the Star about a potential story at Sensient was a NIOSH health hazard evaluation that showed that about a third of the plant’s production workers had experienced abnormally restrictive lung function during employment. The report prompted Cook to dig deeper, but he soon learned that public records present their own set of difficulties for reporters.

When Cook made a public information request for Indiana OSHA to provide him with any interviews they’d conducted with Sensient plant employees, he received dozens of pages of interviews, but saw that much of them were obscured by redactions. Cook noted that, by law, “the company [could] take a big black marker and cover up anything they consider to be a trade secret. Massive blocks of text were blocked out. So too was any reference to any chemical at all. Employees talked about how there were sensors that had been installed in the plant and how they would routinely go off.”

In one of the interviews, a worker described a situation in which there was a chemical release in the plant and management’s response was to “shut the door and keep working.” Another employee discussed how Sensient had replaced some labels on chemicals to indicate that the chemicals posed a lesser degree of hazard, which made it so he or she didn’t know how to store them properly. Yet another worker reflected on a spill at the plant, remembering a “big yellow cloud from the spill, 40 to 60 feet of solid yellow.” The same worker was diagnosed with spots on his lungs.

Even though Cook didn’t have a specific “face” for his story, he had enough information from public records to go forward and publish his article in the Star in August. “The story was well-received when it came out,” he said, explaining that readers sympathized with the workers and wondered what could be done. When Cook reached out to companies that were customers of Sensient, both Starbucks and the Campbell Soup Company responded with workplace safety investigations of the plant. According to Cook, Sensient has promised $4 million in safety upgrades since his article was published. He attributes the strong response to his article to the public records he cited.

As in many sessions during AIHce 2013, Cook referenced the tough economy, saying, “In a day when newspapers are cutting staff, [especially investigative and labor reporters], these stories could go unnoticed.” He asked the audience of IH and OEHS professionals to take two things from his story: that public records are important for worker safety, and that a healthy relationship with the media can help create a healthy work environment for employees.

“We’re not going to learn about these kinds of stories without some help,” Cook told attendees. He urged the audience to help reporters cover these stories, even if the aid is anonymous. “Reporters start from scratch on [these stories],” he said. “It would be great if someone put together some kind of resource list for reporters.” He ended his talk by telling the audience, “I take business cards,” which elicited chuckles from the crowd, though many attendees sought him out after the lecture to hand over their contact information.

Kay Bechtold is editorial assistant for The Synergist.