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A 3M factory worker died. Was the company indifferent to safety?

By Mike Hughlett, Star Tribune
Published: March 17, 2024, 6:00am

PRAIRIE DU CHIEN, Wisconsin — Trisha Jones worked at 3M’s factory in Prairie du Chien for 23 years, but she dreamed of opening her own café after she retired.

She had already picked the location, right near her home.

Jones, 57, died on the job last spring in the second fatal accident at a 3M factory within 15 months. The deaths were similar. Like Jones, a worker at 3M’s Alexandria, Minn., plant in 2022 was caught and crushed in the rollers of a running machine.

After the Alexandria accident, 3M did a corporate-wide review and determined that machine rollers were hazards needing safety improvements — “compounding” the misfortune of Jones’ death, according to federal workplace regulators.

In November, they slapped 3M with two rare “willful” safety violations, which are reserved for the most egregious infractions. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issues willful citations only when it believes a company shows “intentional disregard” or “plain indifference” to worker safety.

“There is a major stigma that goes along with a willful citation,” said Jordan Barab, deputy assistant secretary at OSHA during the Obama administration. “It’s one of OSHA’s most valuable tools.”

Employers will almost always contest willful violations given the reputational taint they carry, he added.

3M is no exception.

“Though we seek to amicably resolve this matter with OSHA, we do not agree with its characterization of the situation as ‘willful,’ as well as other aspects of its proposed citations and details of its public statements on this matter,” 3M said in a statement about the Prairie du Chien accident.

The company also said it “continues to make safety-related improvements and investments designed to prevent similar incidents in the future.”

Howard Jones, Trisha Jones’ husband, said 3M “redid a lot of things at the plant” after the accident.

He continues to struggle with grief.

“Every day you pay for it,” he said. “Her dying like that — I just can’t seem to get over it.”

Trisha Jones was known as a hard worker, a “workaholic,” as her obituary stated.

“She did a lot of waitressing — the Marquette Café and Bar, the Old Rossville Store,” Howard said. She ran the Pines Café in Harpers Ferry, Iowa, a tiny town on the Mississippi River where she and Howard long lived.

Trisha and Howard owned a property in Harpers Ferry and she aimed to make it into a café when she turned 62 and retired from 3M.

“Right up to the day she died, that was her dream, to get that restaurant going,” he said.

In the early 1990s, Trisha landed a coveted job at 3M, one of the largest employers in the area and only a 20-minute drive from Harpers Ferry.

“3M used to be the going place to get job,” Howard said. “You wanted to work at 3M because that’s where you could make a decent living.”

3M’s Prairie du Chien plant makes a host of products, from vinyl matting to carpet care chemicals. “Trisha worked the belt, the winder — she worked three or four different jobs over the years,” Howard said.

At 6:30 a.m. May 9, Trisha was helping to set up a plastic extrusion machine, guiding material through rollers by hand, according to an OSHA report. As designed, the machine’s rollers were moving at a slow speed during the set-up.

There’s a safety gate, but it’s open when plastic material is guided into the machine. Trisha, who was in training, got caught between the plastic and the rollers. Other workers rushed to cut the plastic fibers, freeing her from the machine. But she had suffered traumatic head injuries.

Howard, a welder, was at work that morning when his boss beckoned him: “There was an accident at 3M,” Howard recalled. “It’s your wife.” Howard rushed to the 3M plant, but Trisha had already died on the shop floor.

“They wanted to explain it to me,” he said. “I said, ‘I don’t want to hear it.’ You couldn’t even describe what it was like to walk out of that building.”

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Trisha Jones had two adult children and four grandchildren. She was a great cook and baker, frequently bringing treats to work at 3M. Howard said a lot of Trisha’s co-workers came to her funeral; 3M covered its costs.

“We are deeply saddened by the tragic incident that took place last year at Prairie du Chien,’ “ 3M said in a statement. “Tragedies like this impact the families and loved ones of those involved, as well as every person working in the plant and all 3Mers.”

3M’s Prairie du Chien plant had no work safety violations in at least a decade before the accident, OSHA records indicate.

But four months after Jones’ death, a complaint was lodged with OSHA over an isocyanate spill at the plant. Isocyanates are chemicals used to make polyurethane products. Overexposure can affect the respiratory tracts of some people, causing asthmalike symptoms.

OSHA fined 3M $73,668 for six “serious” safety violations in connection with the spill. The case has been informally settled with three serious citations for $49,112.

OSHA citations for “serious” safety violations are common. But only 1.2% of 38,979 federal OSHA citations were “willful” in the government’s fiscal year 2022, according to an AFL-CIO analysis of the most recent OSHA data.

Several states, including Minnesota, run their own OSHA programs. From October 2012 through January 2024, Minnesota OSHA said only 52 of the 36,353 citations it issued were for willful safety violations.

Minnesota OSHA tagged 3M with a “serious” citation for inadequate machine guards after the 2022 accident that killed Dale Skillings, a worker at its Alexandria plant. The fine was $25,000, a nonnegotiable minimum penalty under state law for serious violations linked to fatal accidents.

Skillings, a National Guard member, worked full time for 36 years at Camp Ripley before starting a job at 3M in 2013. In February 2022, the 63-year-old Long Prairie resident died while tending a sandpaper processing machine.

A reel of sandpaper on one side of the machine was being unwound through a series of rollers and then wound onto a cardboard tube on the machine’s other side, according to a Minnesota OSHA report. About 40 feet of the 50-foot roll had been run when Skillings got caught in the machine.

3M’s engineering department examined the machine to determine what could have caused the accident. Engineers found a “control logic issue in the computer system,” according to a Minnesota OSHA investigation report. “It was not determined whether 3M created the computer’s control logic or if a third-party vendor created it.”

Due to the issue, the machine’s safety features didn’t function correctly when it switched speeds, a Minnesota OSHA report said.

Following Skillings’ death, 3M assessed its equipment in its U.S. and Canadian plants, according to OSHA.

“The tragedy of another employee’s death in Wisconsin is compounded by the fact that 3M completed a corporate-wide review and determined power rollers were hazards in need of safety improvements,” federal OSHA Regional Administrator Bill Donovan said in November when the willful citations were announced.

OSHA cited 3M for two willful violations for the Prairie du Chien accident: one for inadequate machine guards; the other for insufficient procedures for controlling “hazardous energy” when workers were setting up the plastic extrusion line. OSHA fined 3M $156,259 for each willful violation, the highest amount allowed.

3M, one of the nation’s largest manufacturing companies, tallied $32.7 billion in sales last year.

“To 3M, that fine is a drop in the bucket,” Howard Jones said. “I would like to see some money that would put the hurt on them.”

Barab, the former OSHA administrator, said OSHA penalties have become significantly higher in recent years, but they are still relatively low — particularly for large companies. OSHA fines rarely top $1 million, while penalties assessed by federal environmental regulators are routinely in the millions of dollars, he said.

But for many employers, the tarnish of a willful violation is more important than fines, work safety experts say.

“It’s not about the money,” said Rick Gleason, a former OSHA inspector and emeritus professor in occupational safety and health at the University of Washington. 3M “would pay the full amount if OSHA reclassified the citation to ‘serious’ or ‘repeat.’”

3M has a prominent brand, safety experts point out, and it’s a big force in the industrial safety market, selling a bevy of products including respirators, protective eyewear and fall-protection guards.

“Usually, 3M is the epitome of safety and health,” Gleason said.