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Workers exposed to safety hazards at LaGrange auto parts factory

Burns, lacerations, eye damage reported at Sewon. Company says plant is now safer.

By Dan Chapman - The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The sparks would burn through Kimberly Scandrick’s cotton work shirts, leaving pinprick-sized marks on her arms and chest.

Freckles, she and a co-worker at Sewon America called them, laughing uneasily at the scars left by the robotic welder. Still, in the back of her mind, Scandrick worried that the sparks one day would turn into flames.

On the morning of Dec. 13, 2010, those fears became reality. A spark or molten bit of steel hit her in the back. “I felt something hot, and it was getting hotter,” said Scandrick. “Everybody started screaming. The girl next to me said that my clothes were on fire, and I just took off running.”

The list of workers injured at Sewon is as gruesome as it is long. Arms and legs lacerated by steel parts. Fingers crushed by machines and pallets. Eyeballs sunburned by welding rays. A scrotum punctured by a “sharp object.”

Scandrick, now 26, wears a butterfly pattern of scars and welts across two-thirds of her back.

An investigation of Sewon’s safety record by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reveals few manufacturing plants in Georgia, and none in the state’s burgeoning auto industry, have been inspected, cited and fined as often as Sewon by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

The AJC analyzed 1,500 pages of OSHA investigative reports, obtained via the Freedom of Information Act. Those documents, along with records from local emergency responders, detail management’s failure to protect workers.

The AJC also conducted two dozen interviews with current and former Sewon employees who spoke of unsafe working conditions, stifling heat, unavailable protective gear, intense pressure to meet production goals and unresponsive, penny-pinching management.

Sewon managers acknowledge that the factory, which opened four years ago and supplies Kia and Hyundai with floor panels, fender aprons and other parts, struggled with safety issues early on. But, they add, the company has since bolstered training and cut down on accidents.

Last month, the companyinvited an AJC reporter to the factory in LaGrange. The reporter was given a tour of the massive plant and an opportunity to interview eight Sewon managers, including President Chang Joo Lee, and two lawyers.

“For the first couple of years, it was a learning curve, and we also had to meet Kia’s expectations,” Ken Horton, the plant’s general manager, said during the interview. “We feel that we’re a very safe company.”

Kia is responsible for the Korean investment wave that hit West Georgia in November 2009 with the opening of an assembly plant in West Point. Kia, Sewon and a dozen other suppliers employ 14,000 people.

The ballyhooed new industry, though, didn’t come cheap. State and local governments gave Kia and its suppliers more than $500 million in tax breaks, free land, training and other incentives. Critics say the cost to Georgia shouldn’t outweigh the benefits.

“It’s not worth all that money,” said Scandrick, a single mother of three young children. “Not for the way they treat their workers. No way.”

Trouble from the start

Rolls of steel, up to 20 tons each, are stamped into sheets then molded into frames for Sorentos, Optimas and Sante Fes. The Sewon plant, on Sewon Boulevard in an industrial park, built 355,000 stamped chassis parts last year and expects to do an additional 10,000 this year. President Chang said Sewon America, a U.S. subsidiary of a Korean industrial conglomerate, turned a profit in 2012.

The million-square foot factory is a whirl of motion. Robots twirl the sheets into position for robotic welders that fuse pieces together. Sparks fly. An equal number of robots and humans – about 900 each – build the bones of cars and crossovers. Signs throughout the factory proclaim safety as “our top priority” and to watch for forklifts.

Employees began complaining to OSHA soon after Sewon began production. Federal investigators descended on the plant and uncovered a litany of hazards.

The feds zeroed in on safety measures that were supposed to protect workers. An automatic cut-off that shuts down a 400-ton stamping machine if a hand or arm gets too close was “inoperative … exposing employees to crushing hazards and other injuries which could potentially lead to their death,” according to OSHA documents.

Employees got cut, some seriously, because they weren’t provided “appropriate hand protection,” the feds reported. Instead of sturdier gloves, the company routinely provided two pairs of cotton gloves that ripped, employees said.

Vernon Marquis, the company’s safety manager, told an OSHA investigator in December 2009 that “management was using the cotton gloves as a cost saving measure.”

Ken Mangold, a former human resources manager, also told investigators that workers weren’t “qualified to work on live wires” and that management wouldn’t hire an electrician. He added that “upper management does not enforce the wearing of (protective gear) for certain employees. I feel that it is extremely difficult to get items approved for safety.”

‘Ongoing, constant pain’

Welding appeared to be the greatest hazard. Sewon uses hundreds off robotic welders to cut and fuse steel pieces. Welds send arcs of sparks cascading 10, sometimes 20 feet away.

“I caught on fire at my machine because my fire safe apron was full of holes,” one welder, whose name was redacted, told OSHA in April 2012. “They put floor tape on it and sent me back to work.”

Welders weren’t the only victims.

“I have been burned plenty of times from the sparks from the robotic welder,” said an assembly technician who loaded finished parts onto a hand-truck.

Scandrick, who lives in Newnan and started at Sewon in August 2010, fed metal pieces to a robotic welder that would fuse them together with floor boards. She said she was fitted for a work shirt and pants a month later by Sewon. But she said she never received the uniform.

Scandrick was wearing a Sewon baseball cap, long-sleeved shirt, protective sleeves and a thin, black jacket on Dec. 13. The fire raced over her jacket and shirt and seared her back. Flames spouted as she ran screaming down the production line. A supervisor tackled her and rolled her.

“Everybody was hollering and that freaked me out,” Scandrick said. “I didn’t know how bad it was. I was like, ‘Oh my God. Am I going to live?’ I wondered who would take care of my kids.”

Scandrick was airlifted to Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, where she spent two-and-a-half weeks in the burn unit recovering from second- and third-degree burns.

“It felt like my body was just throbbing. It was ongoing, constant pain,” she said. “They gave me morphine. It really didn’t do anything.”

A company-paid nurse visited Scandrick at home every few days over the next two months. She has since undergone four skin graft surgeries, but the pain — physical and psychological, she says — lingers. Scandrick prevailed in a worker’s comp case.

Her attorney, who is preparing a lawsuit, says the next round of surgery will cost $150,000. Scandrick says she survives by getting financial help from her family.

Sewon contests Scandrick’s story. Marquis, the safety manager, said in an interview that all employees get fire-resistant jackets. Scandrick was given a jacket “the day before” the accident, he added.

But “she came to work the following day with a synthetic jacket,” Marquis said. “Somehow, it was a freak incident, a weld spatter from another robot hit her in the back. It started to smolder, and the material was so combustible that she caught on fire.”

Scandrick said the jacket, which she received at least two weeks earlier at a company Thanksgiving dinner, was a gift from Sewon and meant to block the cold, not sparks.

Scandrick, in hindsight, wished she’d never heard of Sewon. Even before the accident she didn’t like working 12-hour shifts six or seven days a week. She said it wasn’t worth $10 an hour, not with young children at home who spent more time with grandma than mom.

But Scandrick needed a paycheck, and the post-recession economy of West Georgia was marked by double-digit unemployment. Besides, she didn’t have time to apply for a new job.

Welding hazards

Sparks weren’t the only hazards of robotic welders, according to employees and OSHA files. The machines are supposed to have barriers in place to keep dangerous ultraviolet rays from harming the eyes of non-welders passing by who were not required to wear protective goggles.

Sewon “exposed all employees working and visiting the production area to eye injuries due to not providing screening or shielding,” OSHA wrote. “Management knows there is a problem but fails to take adequate action to correct the situation.”

Floor managers told OSHA that upper management wanted the screens removed because they impeded production.

Portable welding machines, operated by employees fixing damaged parts, also weren’t enclosed sufficiently to block harmful rays, employees said.

Jerome Walls Jr., who re-welded parts for two years on the night shift, said Sewon never gave him a welding helmet to protect his head from sparks and eyes from searing rays. (Sewon says it provided Walls with a voucher to buy a helmet; he says the company is lying.) Walls, wearing tinted glasses and a baseball cap turned backward, would line up a piece and turn his head away to avoid looking toward the flame.

It didn’t work. Bright light still pains Walls’ eyes. He wears a cap and sunglasses even indoors. An ophthalmologist, Walls says, told him he’d lost 55 percent of his vision.

“It’s like sand up under your eyelids,” Walls explained. “I’d cut potatoes into rounds and stick them over my eyes with a warm or cold wash cloth over it. That would draw the fire from my eyes. I’d go to sleep like that every morning.”

Jim Howe, a nationally renowned industrial safety expert, said employers have no excuse for subjecting workers to harmful welding rays.

“I have National Safety Council manuals from the 1950s on my desk that say protect workers from arc flashes,” he said. “This is a well-known hazard.”

Sewon officials say that welding problems have been fixed.

‘Dangerous in there’

Troup County ambulances frequently visited 1000 Sewon Boulevard, according to emergency management records obtained by the AJC. From the time the plant opened through the end of last year, ambulance drivers responded to 23 “trauma” calls — cuts, falls, head injuries, fist fights, arms crushed or stuck in machines — at Sewon.

“That’s a high number,” said Jerry Presnal, deputy director of the county’s emergency management system.

Sewon disputes the EMS numbers and says the plant had 10 trauma calls. Marquis reviewed safety records, at the AJC’s request, and said either the incidents weren’t reported to the company or EMS was not called. Sewon is seeking an explanation from Troup County.

Kia Motors — with more than three times as many workers — logged 33 traumatic calls during that time, according to West Point EMS files. Ambulances were sent to Mobis, whose 675 employees build chassis and bumpers in West Point, five times. PowerTech, whose 475 workers make transmissions, logged two trauma calls.

Kia, Mobis and Powertech, all Korean owned, have each been inspected once by OSHA since 2009. OSHA inspections are typically launched after complaints from workers. Sewon has been inspected nine times and cited for 18 violations.

Two of the violations, for welding flash burns and insufficient protective gear, were “willful,” or committed by Sewon “with plain indifference to, or intentional disregard for, employees’ safety and health,” according to OSHA. The feds also cited the company for numerous “serious violations” in which a substantial probability exists for death or serious injury.

In all, Sewon was fined $136,000 that was later reduced to $82,000 upon appeal. Ben Ross, acting deputy regional administrator for OSHA in Atlanta, said companies that are investigated once usually don’t reappear on the agency’s radar.

“For a single facility at the same location performing the same type of work, that is unusual compared to other establishments,” he said.

Sewon says most of the citations and fines resulted from incidents in 2009 and 2010 and have since been remedied. In 2013, for example, the company registered a safety and illness rate that was less than half the industry standard.

Horton, the general manager, said the company has beefed-up training, hired a training specialist, added a worker-management safety committee and recruited an ex-OSHA inspector to periodically review safety procedures.

He added that many of the employees once worked in textile mills and weren’t used to more challenging automotive production. Horton also took issue with disgruntled workers who complained to OSHA instead of telling management about any safety issue.

“The company is allowing us to invest whatever it takes to keep safe our employees,” Horton said. “It’s just the right thing to do and the numbers speak for themselves in terms of reduction” of incidents.

Fifteen of the 18 violations were logged in 2009 and 2010. Of the nine inspections, though, six have occurred since 2010. Two final inspection reports, and possible violations, are pending.

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that employees are still unhappy with working conditions and still filing complaints,” said OSHA’s Ross. “We are responding to those complaints because we believe they warrant an actual inspection.”

In August, a pallet dislodged and broke a worker’s leg. In May, employees complained of excessive heat: Candy melted in the break room vending machine. And, last December, a 25-ton overhead crane struck a cherry picker sending two men plummeting 45 feet to the factory floor. They were seriously injured with broken bones and concussions. OSHA reported that the crane operator’s view of the cherry picker was blocked by “an extremely large press.”

“It was dangerous in there,” said Walls, the former welder who was fired last February for violating safety rules, according to Sewon. “And they were working folks like slaves. People were tired. Nobody wants to work seven days a week, every week.”

‘Make our people be happy’

Walls says he worked just about every day for two years to keep up with production demands from Kia. Scandrick also worked virtually every day for four months before she was injured. Management, they said, promised raises and promotions if they worked Sundays — and consequences if they didn’t. (Sewon denies threatening workers.)

The overtime money was good. Walls, an Alabama high school graduate, pulled down $50,000 in 2011 after child support payments were taken out of his paycheck.

Constant, 12-hour work days, though, are grueling and can lead to problems. A quality team leader told OSHA in March 2010 that Sewon’s “greatest hazard” was “a fatigued workforce.

“It is a safer workplace,” he added, “when the demand by Kia is not as high for cars.”

Kia had capacity to build 300,000 vehicles a year in 2009. Now, the company can build 360,000 units a year. Full-bore production, though, typically leaves less time to fix machines, train workers and trouble-shoot problems.

“We just don’t get the opportunity to perform preventative maintenance,” Greg Prater, the acting maintenance manager for Sewon told OSHA in 2010.

Many of the American managers and employees blamed cultural difference for the maintenance and safety problems.

Safety manager Marquis told OSHA, “Korean management don’t ask us about the OSHA standards. They just do things. They don’t get input from us at all.”

He now says relations with management are much improved.

Mangold, the ex-human resources manager, told investigators that “the largest hazard we face is the communication between upper management and middle management.”

In South Korea, the death rate from industrial accidents in 2007 was more than double the U.S. rate, according to a report by the Korean OSHA. And Korea is the only country among the top 30 industrialized nations whose employees worked more than 2,000 hours a year on average.

“In order to have success and reap the benefits of labor, one must be determined to complete every task and have the tenacity to withstand any hardship,” reads a passage on the web page of Sewon’s parent company. “The company must be a foundation for ones’ (sic) growth, along with motivation provided by the conviction that one may be unemployed instead.”

Sewon’s top managers acknowledged cultural and work-place differences in the interview last month, but insisted that the company treats its employees better than before.

“I want to make our people be happy,” said President Chang, “happier than in the past.”

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