Employees Claim Tenneco Puts Profit Over Safety

SMITHVILLE, Tenn. - Some workers at the Tenneco plant in Smithville claim the company is putting profit over safety.

It follows meetings last spring when the supervisors told employees they were exposed to a cancer causing dust.

Tenneco Workers Worried They Put Their Kids At Risk

Company officials told employees they could be taking the dust home with them and exposing their families as well.

Tenneco spokesperson Steven Blow said the Fortune 500 company quickly took action when they discovered high levels of hexavalent chromium at the plant in February.

"We found an issue. When we found that issue we immediately worked to try and rectify the problem and get a safe and secure environment," Blow said.

He said company supervisors started notifying its 600 employees about the serious nature of the problem -- including that their families could have been exposed if the dust had been taken home on people's uniforms.

"We certainly had those conversations with people to be open and honest about what was going on," Blow said.

Employees like welder Ryan Johnson, who has worked there since 2011, said they were shocked by the news and remain concerned about their health.

"I'm just sitting there thinking there is a good chance I might not be able to see my daughter grow up," Johnson said.

In March, inspectors with the Tennessee Occupational and Safety Administration (TOSHA) found employees overexposed to chromium and cited the plant for 20 serious violations.

Tenneco said it had doctors examine employees and tested to see if they were taking contaminated dust home to their families.

"The testing that we did on people leaving the plant did not show any elevated levels thankfully," Blow said.

But employees question the accuracy of the company's testing.

And although Blow told us there have been no reports of medical issues, NewsChannel 5 Investigates talked to employees who had symptoms of chromium exposure like nose bleeds and dermatitis.

In fact, TOSHA inspectors pictured an employee with "severe dermatitis on his arm" in March and noted that the employer's supervisor stated, "It was probably his laundry detergent."

"If there are medical issues that need to be addressed they will be addressed," Blow said.

Tenneco has said it will install a multimillion-dollar ventilation system in the plant to remove the cancer causing welding fumes.

In the meantime, it is giving welders in affected areas respirators.

But TOSHA cited the company because some of the respirators did not fit.

In one case, a Tenneco employee told TOSHA inspectors that he was never told his beard could prevent a good seal.

"That's all being addressed," Blow said. "All that personal protective equipment is in place and fitted to individuals."

Several former employees said they quit after being told about the dangers at the plant, but others like Johnson said they stayed because it is the best paying job they can find.

"They know they can get away with just about anything because they are giving them a good paycheck," Johnson said.

NOTE: NewsChannel 5's first report was shared by environmental activist Erin Brockovich. (See below.)

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