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Workers say they were exposed to harmful chemicals at asparagus facility

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Flickr/Joe Gratz

Twelve hour shifts, six days a week. A persistent, chemical smell that caused eyes to water, throats to itch and heads to ache. Two hundred workers and only two bathrooms.

These were the conditions inside an asparagus processing facility in Oceana County in 2019, according to two workers who’ve filed a federal lawsuit seeking damages from the owner, Todd Greiner Farms.
One of the workers alleges the smell from the chemicals became so overpowering, she passed out in a bathroom and had to be rushed to the hospital by ambulance.

“[She] Rodriguez was frightened and thought she was going to die,” the lawsuit alleges. “She worried for her children who were young and depended on her.”

The Michigan Immigrant Rights Center filed the lawsuit on behalf of the worker, Obdulia Rodriguez, and another woman, Maria Valenzuela. The complaint alleges these weren’t the only workers affected by the chemicals. MIRC is asking a federal judge to approve a class-action lawsuit, so that all of the 200 workers at the facility can be eligible for compensation.

Todd Greiner Farms has not yet returned a call from Michigan Radio seeking comment.

"[O]ur clients had no idea what they were being exposed to," says attorney Diana Marin

Diana Marin is supervising attorney at the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center. She says workers called the center in 2019 looking for help.

“The workers were describing just really bad work conditions, where everyone was complaining,” Marin says. “And it wasn’t the kind of case that we sometimes hear where people didn’t want to complain to the bosses. They really did. And yet they were still ignored.”

MIRC helped the workers file a complaint with the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or MIOSHA. After an inspection, MIOSHA cited Todd Greiner Farms with “serious” violations, including failing to inform workers about the chemicals that were being used to wash the asparagus. MIOSHA also cited the facility for not having enough bathrooms for the 200 workers.

Todd Greiner Farms was initially fined $4,000 for the violations, but ultimately paid only $2,000, records show.

In the lawsuit, MIRC says MIOSHA determined that workers had been exposed to a number of chlorine and chloride sanitizers, which are known to cause skin and eye irritation. Despite warnings from the manufacturers about the chemicals, the lawsuit alleges Todd Greiner Farms failed to tell workers anything about the chemicals.

“You know our clients had no idea what they were being exposed to,” says Marin. “And even when they were at the doctor, or the hospital, they weren’t able to say, ‘Oh, it’s these chemicals.’ Which really makes a difference in the kind of medical care that they get.”

After she passed out while at work in June of 2019, Obdulia Rodriguez was prescribed an inhaler, and told to wear a mask at work to cope with the chemical fumes at the asparagus processing facility, according to the lawsuit. Still, she continued to experience symptoms, including headaches. The lawsuit says those headaches continued for another three or four months after her last day at work at the facility.

The lawsuit says other workers left even earlier in the season, unable to cope with the chemical smell.

Marin says MIRC is still trying to reach some of those workers, to let them know about the lawsuit.

“We’re really hoping there is going to be accountability by this employer to their workers,” Marin says.

She says the workers who first came forward to file the lawsuit – Obdulia Rodriguez and Maria Valenzuela – want justice for all the workers there.

“This is the kind of thing that happens to workers too often,” says Marin. “And there are very few workers that are courageous enough to come forward and file a class-action lawsuit and make their names public.”

Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Public’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Public since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.
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