Factory workers at Henkel Aerospace in Bay Point pledged to continue their month-long strike over unsafe working conditions Tuesday, which they say led to the death of one employee and caused another to leave the job with second- and third-degree burns.
About 80 unionized workers walked off the job on Oct. 16 after contract negotiations with upper management hit a stalemate. In addition to a cost-of-living wage increase, the workers say they want the company to take a proactive approach toward preventing workplace accidents.
The company, which is a subsidiary of a German corporation, produces adhesives used in aircrafts. Some of the machines employees use spin at a rate of 700 mph. The workers are also exposed to harmful fumes and chemicals daily.
“The machines we work with are really, really dangerous,” said employee Willard Morris. “They could kill you. We definitely have safety issues in the plant that need to be addressed, and we want the company to be held accountable.”
Morris said that it’s not uncommon for workers to approach management with a safety concern, only to have their worries dismissed.
Henkel’s history with workplace accidents is well-documented; In 2013, a 26-year-old man was pulled into a mixing machine. He died of his injuries after having his legs amputated, an accident that Henkel management at the time said was preventable. Workers said another employee left earlier this year after sustaining second-and-third degree burns on 30 percent of his body.
CAL-OSHA cited the company 10 times in 2016 and 2017. Henkel has paid hundreds of thousands in fines related to 2013 death and other safety issues.
“I noticed a big fault in safety precautions when I came into the company, but it seemed like there were a ton of barricades whenever I tried to fix something," said factory worker Austin Woodyard. “It felt like production over safety, every time."
Despite their issues with the company, both Woodyard and Morris said they like their jobs and take pride in the product they produce.
“It’s not about hurting the company,” Woodyard said. “We love this company. We just want them to love us back, and that’s what we don’t get from them."
Eric Wilcox, who has been Director of Operations at Henkel for eight weeks, said he is listening to the workers and hopes to come to an agreement soon. He couldn’t comment on past incidents but said he is committed to improving safety at the plant.
He said he believes in an open-door policy, and hopes his tenure will create a culture in which employees feel comfortable when they come with safety concerns.
“Since I’ve been here, I’ve really tried to drive home the message that it’s all about teamwork. One injury is too many in my book. If they’re alleging that we need to work on safety, we are working on it.”
He said he prioritizes safety, quality, and productivity in that order.
The factory is staffed by unionized and non-union members. Production has not been interrupted because of the strike, he said.
Upper management and union workers are set to go to the bargaining table on Wednesday evening.
Check back for updates.