Prison computer recycling put staff, inmates at risk, NIOSH finds

Federal prisoners and staff overseers were exposed for years to excessive levels of toxic heavy metals during computer recycling operations.

Federal prisoners and staff overseers were exposed for years to excessive levels of toxic heavy metals during computer recycling operations, according to a report from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health.

A lack of biological monitoring and industrial hygiene data inside the prisons, however, prevented NIOSH from documenting any health problems from these illegal levels of exposure.

The NIOSH report was submitted to the Justice Department's Office of Inspector General in December as part of a systemwide review of all the federal prison recycling centers.

The report covered conditions at federal prisons in Atwater, Calif.; Elkton, Ohio; Texarkana, Texas; and Marianna, Fla., between 1997 and 2003. NIOSH investigators visited the facilities from 2008 through 2009.

NIOSH found that prison staff and inmates had been exposed to illegally high levels of toxins for years at all of the facilities it inspected, except the one at Marianna.

The recycling operations involved prisoners breaking up computer components, often with hammers, at for-profit prison industries. NIOSH concluded that, for years, these recycling operations lacked adequate containment to prevent workers from being coated with dangerous amounts of lead, cadmium and other heavy metals inside the hardware.

“Computer components came into loading bays, they were handed to crews of inmates who broke them up with hammers and the only containment was a cardboard box,” said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a service organization that focuses on employee-related environmental issues.

“It was difficult for NIOSH to document harm to individuals based on absence of any data,” Ruch said. His group has assisted the Bureau of Prisons employee, Leroy Smith, who exposed the hazard. The Justice IG review was prompted by complaints filed by Smith in 2004.

The NIOSH report concluded that managers failed to:

  • Conduct adequate planning and job hazard analysis before initiating electronics recycling operations.
  • Identify potential health hazard in a timely manner and, as a result, adequate hazard controls were not established for several years at some prison facilities.
  • Provide any training, guidance or oversight to address health hazards associated with electronics recycling to staff and inmate workers.

According to the NIOSH report, it appears that Smith’s disclosures have led to new hazard-reduction practices.

PEER officials hope that those responsible for the hazardous working conditions will be held accountable.

“When the Justice Department IG finally completes its investigation, we hope that it names the particular federal managers responsible for these dangerous conditions and recommends appropriate disciplinary action,” Ruch said.

About the Author

Rutrell Yasin is is a freelance technology writer for GCN.


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