GM’s Ultium Cells Battery Plant Has Been a Hotbed of OSHA Investigations

A slurry containing a chemical that causes nervous system damage and infertility spilled at the facility last weekend.

byNico DeMattia|
Photo | GM
Photo | GM.
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The United Auto Workers Union (UAW) has been fighting for a new contract, with better safety protections and pay for its workers, at GM's Ultium Cells plant in Warren, Ohio for months. There have been multiple incidents regarding worker safety that are being investigated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) at the Ultium plant, and the latest involved a dangerous chemical spill over the weekend.

According to The Detroit News, Ultium spokesperson Katie Burdette said that operations in the area are paused until a third-party company finishes cleaning and containing the leak. The black slurry that covered the ground is as hazardous as it looks, as it contains n-Methylpyrrolidone (NMP), a chemical used for dissolving polymer that contains battery materials like aluminum, lithium, and manganese.

While there's no federal exposure limit to NMP, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says that NMP "presents an unreasonable risk of injury to health under its conditions of use." The California Department of Public Health (CDPH) says that NMP can affect the nervous system, cause fetal issues, and even lead to infertility.

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Ultium Cells reported the incident to OSHA, which has opened an investigation to find out what happened and how the company handled the incident. Add it to the list, as there were already five open OSHA investigations into the Ultium plant, making this one the sixth. And that's in addition to the five OSHA investigations that already closed, which resulted in three fines, totaling $31,078.

Why aren't Ultium workers protected by the same UAW contract as other GM plant workers? Because Ultium LLC is a separate entity that's owned both by GM and LG Energy Solutions. Previous union agreements don't apply to such joint ventures, which is something the UAW feels is intentional, so automakers can skirt master-labor wages, according to Bloomberg. GM disagrees, saying the joint venture was done to take advantage of LG's intellectual property.

Since existing UAW agreements with GM don't apply to Ultium workers, they aren't protected in the same way in case of injury. Thankfully, there are no known injuries from the chemical spill at the Ultium plant over the weekend. However, OSHA will continue its investigation into what caused the spill and what safety precautions are in place. At the same time, the UAW is continuing to fight for Ultium plant workers to have the same union protections as the rest of its members.

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