NEW BEDFORD — Representatives of local and state worker advocacy groups sent a letter last week to a city seafood processing facility detailing concerns about worker health.
The letter, delivered April 19 in person and by email to North Coast Seafoods, discusses “troubling symptoms and illness” among current and former workers. The workers believe it is caused by a machine they say cuts and debones fish with hot water and pressure.
“It produces and releases a smoke-like vapor that contains fish particulates. There has been some effort to channel the vapor out of the building, and while filters are used, they are often clogged,” wrote members of Pescando Justicia, a 12-member committee of former and current seafood processing workers.
In the letter, they said the vapor is not completely removed and instead permeates through the facility.
“We are concerned that current and former North Coast workers may be experiencing occupationally induced asthma, and possibly other respiratory illnesses, as a result of breathing in vapors from the [water jet cutter],” Pescando Justicia stated.
Adrian Ventura, executive director of of Centro Comunitario de Trabajadores (CCT), a local immigrant workers advocacy organization, said representatives of the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (MassCOSH) and CCT were involved in sending the letter.
At least eight workers raise concerns
He said at least eight workers have come to CCT complaining about this issue.
In the “spirit of cooperation,” Pescando Justicia asked North Coast Seafoods to consider their concerns and investigate whether the machine is affecting workers’ health. The group also emailed its letter to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, and Damon Chaplin, director of the New Bedford Health Department.
Chaplin did not respond to a request for comment. Jon Carvalho, the city’s public information officer, said this issue appears to fall under OSHA’s purview and that the Health Department would communicate the complaint to the federal agency.
North Coast Seafoods issues statement
Milagros Barreto, Immigrant Worker Center director at MassCOSH, said on Thursday afternoon they had not received any response from North Coast Seafoods regarding the letter, but that they looked forward to hearing from them soon.
Ventura said a human resources staff member at the New Bedford facility refused to take the letter from their hands on April 19. As a result, he said they taped a copy on the office door.
Megan Pileggi, a representative of North Coast Seafoods, provided a statement by email late Thursday afternoon.
“North Coast Seafoods is committed to providing a safe work environment for all employees. We take great care to ensure that important matters such as this are properly investigated and thoroughly addressed. This specific issue was raised initially in 2018 and after a full investigation including independent testing performed by a contracted third-party and OSHA, the machinery and its environment was deemed to be fully safe. We are addressing the most recent concerns expressed this week, investigating the concerns and ensuring that all workplace safety standards are being met. Thank you for sharing this information with us.”
Pileggi said the water jet cutter was installed in 2017 and is the only machine of its kind in the company. Asked by email if the company would use an independent entity to investigate, she only said they are currently working to address the employees’ concerns.
Ventura said he would like OSHA to visit the facility for inspection without notice.
Lisa Knauer, a professor at UMass Dartmouth and advisor to CCT, said a representative from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health responded to their letter, stating they were interested in looking into the issue.
Pescando Justicia letter: