Electronics recycling may be a hazard for prisoners, workers

US federal report cites problems with materials handling, medical monitoring at Ohio prison

Breaking rocks is one thing, but breaking monitors is a potential health hazard for US federal prisoners and prison employees, according to a US government review that faulted safety practices at one correctional facility where electronics equipment is recycled.

For years, according to an initial report written by staffers at the US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), inmates at the federal prison in Elkton, Ohio, recycled monitors, computer chips and other electronics gear used by government agencies without respiratory protection or environmental controls to limit their exposure to lead and cadmium. Critics have claimed that such practices are as bad as what takes place in third-world countries, and there was little in the NIOSH report to disabuse that charge.

The report, dated July 16 and written in the form of a letter to an official in the inspector general's office at the US Department of Justice, has yet to be posted on the NIOSH Web site. But it was made public Monday (download PDF) by a group called Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) that is advocating changes at Elkton and other federal prisons that recycle electronics equipment.

The NIOSH staffers also faulted the medical surveillance at the Elkton facility, saying that it didn't comply with federal safety rules. "No medical exams (including physical examinations) are done on inmates; staff receive inconsistent examinations and biological monitoring by their personal physicians," the report said.

The worst practices occurred before 2003, and safety improvements have been made at Elkton since then, according to NIOSH. But the report recommended a number of other steps that the agency wants to see done to protect prisoners and Elkton employees, including improvements to an exhaust ventilation system and full compliance with all federal occupational-safety standards.

NIOSH also is conducting reviews at federal prisons in other US states, to assist the DOJ's inspector general in an ongoing investigation of the health and safety practices used in the electronics recycling programs. The final report by NIOSH will cover its evaluations of all three recycling programs.

The recycling practices used by prison-based operations have been drawing attention from federal employee unions and environmental groups. Jeff Ruch, PEER's executive director, said today that he would like to see the federal government shut down the recycling programs until all the proper safeguards are put in place.

Ruch added that the history of the programs raises accountability issues concerning managers who ignored or suppressed information about the lack of safety procedures. And he claimed that despite the improvements cited by NIOSH, prisoners are still smashing monitors with hammers. "If they are going to do it, they ought to do it right," Ruch said.

PEER's press release about the NIOSH report included a statement from Bill Meek, vice president of the union local that represents workers at the Elkton prison, saying that the report "verifies our concerns" about staff members being exposed to toxins.

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Patrick Thibodeau

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