AJC Watchdog: First Alert

Keeping watch on those who hold the public trust and money

Workers at risk of amputation, burns, falls at Kia supplier plant

Kia, the auto company that put down Korean roots and jobs in West Point, Ga., sources its parts from a serial violator of safety rules that has just been cited again for exposing workers to numerous dangers.

It's not just any citation. Federal regulators cited Daeil USA Corp, a maker of struts and other auto parts, in remarkably strong terms. The violations were called "willful," "serious," and, perhaps worst of all, some "repeated" -- and repeated again, after already being called out.

The citations, released Jan. 28, outline dozens of problems leaving workers vulnerable to amputation, electrocution, damaged eyesight and hearing, burns, falls and being struck by flying parts.

Joseph Roesler, the area director for the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration, was blunt in a statement released to the public.

Daeil "repeatedly claims that it is 'too expensive' to address the safety hazards found in this workplace," he said.  "Management at this facility has adopted a productivity-over-safety mentality."

Daeil, which operates across the border in Alabama and also supplies Hyundai in that state, did not respond to the AJC's requests for comment.

Among the violations OSHA cited, employees performed maintenance on the "piercing" machine and others, without required measures to prevent their accidental startup.  The chemical room's floor was allowed to become slippery from oil and water, creating hazards for employees who walked and worked there.  The company failed to monitor high sound levels to see if employees needed ear protection; and the absence of some flameproof screens exposed employees to eye injury hazards and skin burns from welding arc flashes and sparking.  The welding protection citation was levied in 2013, too, and before that in 2012.

In 2014 and 2013, AJC stories detailed the injury and death of auto parts workers at various other companies in the region, from similar kinds of problems.

So how does a company, manufacturing on the world stage, wind up repeating safety gaps that would be unthinkable in any decent high school workshop?

"They understood that there were potential hazards to employees," Stephen Day, OSHA's assistant area director in Mobile, Alabama, said in an AJC interview.  "They understood there were OSHA requirements that prohibited those activities. Yet they advised that they didn't have the time to shut down production in order to implement the requirements of OSHA."

Kia, which received massive tax breaks to move to Georgia and has drawn many suppliers and jobs to the region, did not respond to the AJC's question about whether it was concerned about its supplier or had discussed the matter with them.

As to the OSHA fine, for all the harsh language toward Daeil, the penalty for those dozens of problems amounts to $171,870.  That's less than half what Daeil paid in 2013 to renovate the interior of its new manufacturing facility as the company expanded its workforce and moved, according to an online post by the construction contractor.  (Daeil ballooned from 80 employees in 2012 to 115 recently, according to OSHA.)  The fines are capped within limits set by Congress, Day said, and Daeil may pay still less than that if they fix the problems and negotiate favorably with the government.

The AJC's analysis in 2014 of the Southeastern region found that in general Korean parts companies, striving to supply Korean automakers that located here, had the highest rate of violation.  The worst single violator was an American company, Whitesell.

Regulators were concerned.

“The safety manager at the plant … comes home crying because of the lack of safety at the facility and managements (sic) lack of concern for the welfare of its workers,” an OSHA investigator wrote of one company in 2009.

By the time they spoke to the AJC, those companies said they'd taken the problems in hand.

OSHA in this region has now made a project of the auto parts industry, after it noticed particular problems there, and officials say it's making progress.

"We have seen that some employers are taking a more proactive stance toward safety and health in their facility," Day said.  "But we're not seeing that among all employers."



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About the Author

Ariel Hart is a reporter on health care issues. She works on the AJC’s politics team and has reported on subjects including the Voting Rights Act and transportation.