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Trimac tank cleaners sue over ‘poisonous and lethal’ chemicals exposure

Carrier has history of violations, according to OSHA, EPA records

Jim Allen/FreightWaves

Former Trimac Transportation workers filed a lawsuit against the bulk carrier on Dec. 8, alleging it failed to provide respirators, ensure proper ventilation and implement other safety measures at its tank washing facilities in Georgia.

The employees, called wash rack technicians, claim they suffered “debilitating” medical conditions stemming from prolonged exposure to “poisonous and lethal” chemicals while working in confined spaces at the carrier’s Atlanta and Fairburn facilities.

The carrier, headquartered in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, provides transportation and maintenance services for both liquid and dry bulk chemicals. Trimac has approximately 2,500 tractors in its North American fleet.

As part of their jobs, the tank cleaners removed hardened chemical waste, known as “heel” inside tank trucks, railcars and other containers. The company also failed to provide proper protective equipment, including respirators, the employees claim in a lawsuit filed in state court in Fulton County, Georgia.

“These guys climbed down into these tanks armed only with grinders, hammers and chisels five days a week – some did it for up to 18 years – without respirators,” James Hugh Potts II, lead counsel for the plaintiffs, told FreightWaves.

One of the chemicals the wash rack technicians scraped out of tanks is toluene diisocyanate or TDI. The chemical, which hardens when exposed to water or air, is used to make flexible foam products for bedding, furniture and carpet padding.

Methylene diphenyl diisocyanate (MDI) is used to manufacture rigid polyurethane foams for home and refrigerator insulation.

Caustic is a chemical used to dissolve grease, oils, fats and protein-based deposits. Toluene and xylene are chemicals in many household and industrial products.

Other chemicals listed in the complaint that tank cleaners were exposed to over the years include: 

  • Acrylate
  • Ammonia
  • Benzene
  • Formaldehyde
  • Naphtha
  • 85% hydrogen peroxide
  • Nitric acid
  • Roundup (glyphosate)
  • Styrene
  • Sulfuric acid

Workers at Trimac’s Georgia facilities cleaned out 16 to 25 tank trucks per day that last contained potentially lethal chemicals, the complaint states.

After spending years cleaning these tanks, plaintiffs claim they were diagnosed with diseases caused by “long-term, repeated exposure” to hazardous chemicals, the lawsuit states.

One tank cleaner worked at the Trimac terminals in Atlanta and Fairburn for 18 years from 2000 until April 2018. He currently needs heart and kidney transplants, according to the complaint. Another former employee was said to have been diagnosed with blastoid mantle cell lymphoma in 2019 after 13 years cleaning tanks. A third tank cleaner was diagnosed with vitiligo, a chronic disorder that causes skin areas to lose pigmentation, after working at Trimac for 10 years. 

Trimac denies the employees’ allegations.

“The health and safety of our employees and the community are paramount at Trimac,” Garry Snow, director of communications of Trimac, told FreightWaves. “We hold ourselves to the highest standards to ensure that our essential work is performed safely and in accordance with established guidelines and regulations.”

The carrier owns and leases 100 tank washing facilities in the U.S., the complaint states.

Besides Trimac, the lawsuit also names some employees working at the two facilities in Georgia as defendants and other carriers hauling chemicals the wash rack technicians cleaned.

The complaint also names some of the world’s largest chemical companies as defendants, including BASF, Bayer, Monsanto and Dow.

The tank cleaners are seeking $30 million each in damages.

Carrier has a history of violations

Documents from both the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) show the Trimac tank washing facilities have a history of issues, including the Fairburn site where the plaintiffs worked.

The EPA has hit Trimac with two formal enforcement actions at the Fairburn facility in the last five years.

The carrier agreed to pay $225,000 in a settlement reached with the EPA in June. 

In a detailed facility report from the EPA, Trimac was cited for 12 violations in August 2018 for “hazardous waste treatment storage and disposal standards, standards applicable to generators of hazardous waste, permits for treatment storage or disposal of hazardous waste.”

The EPA found that Trimac failed to conduct a hazardous waste determination on discarded waste rags found in an unlabeled container. According to the EPA report, the facility failed to provide hazardous waste training to individuals who signed hazardous manifests. Trimac was cited for “failure to minimize the possibility of a fire, explosion or any unplanned sudden or non-sudden release of hazardous waste.” 

The EPA facility report stated that “the floor around a 55-gallon hazardous waste container in a satellite accumulation area (SAA) was stained with expired waste.”

At the carrier’s facility in Aubrey, Texas, an employee using a high-pressure hose to rinse out a trailer containing hydrated lime slurry sustained chemical burns and was hospitalized in April 2019.

The OSHA inspection report cited Trimac for four serious violations and fined the carrier $26,520. The agency later reduced the amount to $15,000 in October 2019.

The agency also fined Trimac $14,000 for violating its respiratory protection, eye and face protection and hazard communication standards at its Shippenville, Pennsylvania, facility in March 2015.

OSHA’s 10 most-cited safety violations 

Every year, OSHA compiles its top 10 most cited violations. 

In 2019, OSHA issued 2,754 violations to companies violating the agency’s hazard communication standard to identify toxic or hazardous chemicals, make sure they’re labeled correctly, maintain safety data sheets and train employees.

Nearly 1,900 companies violated OSHA’s respiratory protection standard to provide workers with the necessary respirators to protect them from harmful dust, fumes and vapors.

OSHA cited 1,449 companies for violating its personal protective and lifesaving equipment, eye and face protection standard. 

Lawsuit claims company ‘falsified documents’

The lawsuit alleges Trimac routinely falsified documents, including wash tickets, wash requests, wash rack work orders and tank entry forms.

Potts claims Trimac “falsified documents,” stating the tanks they were about to clean contained “nonhazardous” chemicals. However, he claims Trimac’s Hazard Evaluation Report and Hot Work Permit reports showed the trucks last hauled acid and MDI. 

Equipment the cleaners took down with them into the tanks included flashlights, grinders and rubber boots, sometimes gloves. The box marked “ventilation equipment” wasn’t checked on the reports included in the complaint.  

Potts claims Trimac violated Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) by allegedly falsifying the work order reports. 

“These guys went down into the tanks believing the chemicals weren’t harmful, when, in fact, they breathed in the dust that got into their lungs and poisoned them,” Potts told FreightWaves.

The suit also alleges the tank cleaners were injured because of “design and manufacturing defects which existed when defendants’ chemicals were first released to the marketplace.”

Other charges include willful concealment of known defects, negligence, failure to warn and emotional distress.

“This is a dangerous job, but it’s something that’s not talked about very much,” Potts said.

Click for more articles by FreightWaves Senior Editor Clarissa Hawes.

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Clarissa Hawes

Clarissa has covered all aspects of the trucking industry for 14 years. She is an award-winning journalist known for her investigative and business reporting. Before joining FreightWaves, she wrote for Land Line Magazine and If you have a news tip or story idea, send her an email to [email protected]