The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has launched an investigation into working conditions at Sewon America’s LaGrange, Ga., facility after an employee, Teresa Weaver Pickard, died after allegedly being forced to work in extreme heat. Sewon, a company that provides auto parts to Kia, denies Pickard’s death was work-related, but an anonymous source at the plant has disputed Sewon’s account of the tragedy.
Michael D’Aquino, an OSHA public affairs officer for the agency’s Atlanta-West office, confirmed the investigation, the LaGrange Citizen reports:
“We’ll be visiting the [Sewon plant] trying to learn what happened and in what order,” D’Aquino said. “We’ll be looking at physical evidence as well as talking to eyewitnesses and learning as much as possible about the incident.” OSHA also will look at previous reports of misconduct by Sewon, potentially including the 2010 death of a worker who fell 50 feet in a construction accident.
While the Troup County coroner’s office has not released details of its investigation, which has been sent to the state crime lab in Atlanta, the LaGrange Citizen says an anonymous employee reported several details of the incident and work conditions at the factory that are troubling. The employee, who has worked at the location for two years, told the newspaper the assembly line was unbearably hot because the air conditioner on the line wasn’t working properly and several employees in the last week passed out while working.
“I heard that [Pickard] complained of chest pain several times before she was sent to the break room,” the newspaper quotes the employee as saying. Pickard was sent to a break room at that point, but that room also had no air conditioning, something the employee said management does to discourage loitering in the break room. The room was so hot, he said, candy in the vending machines melted. Pickard eventually was sent to the front office, where the employee said Pickard sat for three hours before an ambulance was called. Pickard reportedly died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.
Sewon says it conducted a “thorough” preliminary investigation and concluded Pickard’s death was not work-related:
On May 29, Mrs. Pickard arrived to the line at 6:30 a.m. Then, on or about 8:26 a.m., the management was made aware of Mrs. Pickard’s condition. The EMS was immediately contacted around 8:27 a.m. and EMS arrived about 8:37 a.m. Mrs. Pickard entered the ambulance under her own strength around 8:42 a.m. and left the facility to go to the hospital.
The lawyer for the Pickard family, Robert Bruner, told the newspaper the company’s press release was, at best, misleading, and that the company was not forthcoming with the family about the reasons for the death.
The anonymous employee reported work conditions at the plant are similar to a sweatshop. “It’s a really hostile environment,” the newspaper quoted. “I think [the managers] seek to create an adversarial relationship with employees,” he said. “If they had hot pokers, they’d stab you with them…. I really believe they have contempt for their workers.”
Sewon was fined $135,900 by OSHA for safety violations three years ago. “There is no reason to leave employees unprotected,” said Andre Richards, then-director of OSHA’s Atlanta-West Office. “Management is aware of the deficiencies in their safety and health program and needs to take action.”