Six workers at the Ultium Cells battery plant, a joint venture operated by General Motors and LG Energy in northeast Ohio, have been suspended after refusing to handle dangerous material used in the manufacture of lithium-ion batteries, according to a new report from the UAW.
New battery plants are being built throughout the U.S. from Georgia to California, but the industrial practices inside the factories have been mostly shielded from public view even as automakers introduce new battery-electric vehicles and increase production of existing ones.
The report from the UAW, which last December won the right to represent the 1,100 hourly workers at the Ultium Cells plant near Warren, OH, offers a look at some of hazards facing workers as the industry transitions to BEVs.
Potential hazards in the plant have contributed to high employee turnover, which undermines quality and productivity, according to the union. Some workers estimate annual turnover at the plant exceeds 50%.
GM declined to comment on the UAW report. Ultium Cells says in a statement emailed to Wards, “The UAW’s characterization of the safety concerns at the facility is knowingly false and misleading.” The JV also says it will issue its own report on conditions at the Ohio plant.
The UAW says many of its findings are based on U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Admin. records. OSHA records for the first five months of 2023 indicate 22 people “suffered OSHA-recordable injuries or illnesses, more than four per month.
“This does not count injuries and illnesses that did not reach the reporting threshold,” the UAW says. “In addition, under-reporting of OSHA-recordable injuries and illnesses is common. Hence, it is quite possible that there were more than 22 injuries and illnesses that should have been recorded.
“Equally striking is that 200 days of work were missed due to OSHA-recordable injuries and illnesses. That is 40 days each month. Moreover, employees spent 318 days on work restrictions or transferred to another job due to injury or illness – more than 60 days per month,” the union report says.
Since opening in May 2022, OSHA has issued multiple citations to Ultium, which occupies a portion of the site where GM operated its sprawling Lordstown assembly complex (pictured, below). The UAW report includes a rundown of those citations as well as first-hand accounts from injured workers.
In one case, a quality inspector had to flee her station when toxic fumes filled her work area. In another, a production maintenance technician was sprayed in the face with toxic electrolyte when a machine failed to alert workers one of the battery cells was defective. And a former worker in the plant’s anode production area saw so many hazards in the plant he decided to leave Ultium after only six months.
Ultium did install a shower in the immediate area where six workers refused work assignments on the grounds they were too dangerous. None of the six have returned to work, the report notes.
The UAW is in the midst of negotiating the Ultium workers’ first contract and has stated it would like them folded into the existing contract structure. The union notes its contract with GM provides for participation in health and safety issues by workers or their representatives at all levels of the company from the shop floor to the national level. The agreement also provides for appropriate health and safety training.
The contract language provides a process for identifying and reporting hazards, including a complaint procedure that allows workers to bring issues to their union representatives, who can call them to the attention of the company. The union’s contract language provides for greater protection than that provided by agencies such as OSHA, the UAW report says.
In its statement emailed to Wards, Ultium Cells says it is “eager to resume bargaining with the UAW to discuss any specific concerns, as well as the total compensation package, for our team members.
“The Ultium Cells production facility we’ve built in Warren, Ohio, is one of the most advanced in the world,” the statement says. “Nothing is more important to us than the safety of our team members. There are more than 1,300 people who work at the plant that are committed to safety and quality, and they’re doing a great job.
“The UAW’s characterization of the safety concerns at the facility is knowingly false and misleading. We strongly object to the UAW whitepaper and will provide a detailed response after further review.”
The UAW’s four-year national contracts with the Detroit Three automakers expire Sept. 14. Negotiations between the union and Stellantis were to begin July 13, followed by Ford on July 14 and GM on July 18.