Paper mill workers upset over safety concerns

Video shows smelt leaking at WestRock's Covington mill

COVINGTON, Va. – Workers at the WestRock Covington paper mill are upset about safety risks. Repairs are coming later this week, but employees say it’s inexcusable for them to be working in dangerous conditions.

Workers shot the video, shown above, of red-hot smelt leaking out of a boiler. It's so hot, workers say, it would be like touching lava, and it will explode if it touches water.

Workers are voicing their concerns to WSLS 10 ahead of a scheduled maintenance shutdown Saturday, when they expect the company to fix the problem.

"It's very unstable. And we work around it every day. We look over and there's a hole in the boiler," worker George Catlett said.

Covington Paperworkers Union Local 675 President Bob Booth says the union filed complaints and federal inspectors with OSHA came to the mill in September. Their report isn't available yet.

"The comments we've seen where we've posted the video to social media, people that don't work in here they just cannot believe the environment paper workers work in," Booth said.

Workers say for six months they've wanted the company to do more to fix the problem. Supervisors have installed temporary patches and added cameras, though workers say the surveillance isn't helpful because they can't monitor the feed.

"There are concerns about safety throughout our whole mill and there's interest to turning that around. All of our members, it's been a major topic of discussion," Booth said.

It's a new question for a mill that's been in Covington for 120 years. With more than 1,000 workers, the mill nets WestRock more than $200 million a year.

"I expect to be treated with a little more respect than this," Catlett said.

"The production comes before the safety does. That's the feelings on the floor out there," worker Jeffrey Crawford said.

A West Rock spokesperson said it doesn't provide specifics on operations, but employee safety is a primary concern when asked about the problem. The company is currently in contract negotiations with the union.