Santa Ana workers exposed to toxic environment, seek union

It’s not always wages and benefits that drive workers to organize. In the Kingspan factory in Santa Ana, California workers are seeking to form a union and bargain collectively because the company was taking risks with their health.

Kingspan, an Irish multinational, produces materials for green building construction and says on its website that “buildings should be healthy and inspirational, optimizing the benefits of daylight and fresh, clean air.” Unfortunately, the company’s own factories are failing this test.

Without proper exhaust ventilation, sanding, grinding and welding often generate hazardous airborne particulate matter, putting workers at risk of respiratory illness. Of particular concern is PM2.5 (particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers) because they can bypass the natural filters in your nose and mouth, penetrating deeply into the lungs.

Several concerned workers teamed up with SMART (the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers’ union) and U. California Irvine scientist Dr. Shahir Masri to test the air quality in the Santa Ana facility. Dr. Masri equipped them with personal air monitors they wore on the job for three days, and analyzed the results. Their concerns were founded: in several work locations they were being exposed to unhealthy concentrations of PM2.5.

Why should we, as Catholics, be concerned about this? According to Catholic Social Teaching, every worker deserves safe and healthy working conditions. As Pope John Paul II wrote in Laborem Exercens (1981): “Among these rights there should never be overlooked the right to a working environment and to manufacturing processes which are not harmful to the workers’ physical health [19].”

The company asserts that these problems have been addressed, but the workers are skeptical. They are campaigning to join SMART and gain a right to bargain over wages, working conditions and especially safety and health on the job.

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