The 150 hourly employees at Lehigh Portland Cement in Union Bridge have had an uneasy relationship with their employer.
For nearly three years, the United Paperworkers International had been unsuccessfully negotiating a new contract with the company. In addition, fumes have overcome Lehigh workers in at least four incidents over the past 24 months, the most recent occurring two weeks ago.
A tentative agreement recently reached between the paperworkers union and Lehigh Portland Cement may lessen some of the hostility at the largest employer in the Union Bridge area, but it may be a long time before the company convinces employees that working conditions at the Union Bridge plant are up to par.
Citations from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration for the most recent incident on Sept. 1, which sent two workers to the hospital, only fuels some employees' belief that management has a cavalier attitude toward employee well-being.
During negotiations, employees criticized Lehigh on these issues. They complained that the plant's joint labor-management committee had no real say in determining which kind of waste oil would be burned in the cement kilns, for instance. The company replied that it is in compliance with all health and safety regulations.
Federal officials said that they issued the citation because Lehigh Portland Cement did not install an air monitoring system or develop an emergency evacuation plan, as safety officials recommended after seven employees were overcome by fumes back in April. Plant Manager David Roush said the company did not take such action because it believed the federal officials were only making suggestions.
Considering the problems Lehigh Portland Cement has had with noxious fumes and contaminated oil in the past several years at the Union Bridge facility, company officials should have been more responsive to the federal recommendations. It is quite possible that the company has suffered from a string of bad luck, but failing to explore ways to prevent future incidents sends the wrong message to employees and the community.
In some respects, the cement company has been fortunate. In all of the incidents, workers have generally been treated at medical facilities and released the same day. It's a string of luck that Lehigh shouldn't press.