US Postal Service Facility in Pontiac Investigated After Worker Deaths
When five people who all work in the same building suddenly die on the job over the course of 14 months, there’s absolutely cause for concern. Could those deaths have been caused by something dangerous in the workplace? This is exactly what has happened at the USPS Michigan Metroplex Processing and Distribution Center in Pontiac, Michigan and it has many employees very worried.
The facility was investigated by the Office of the Inspector General after they received a complaint from an employee about the five employee deaths. Since the facility did not have a functioning methane detection system, there is some speculation the worker deaths could have been caused by a buildup of methane in the building. A report released by the Inspector General’s Office was very careful not to directly link the deaths to exposure to methane, but it did say that the faulty methane detection system has not been functioning correctly since March of 2015 and needs to be addressed right away.
Officially, the deaths of the five workers have been classified as being the result of natural causes. According to Mail Hauler’s Union Local President Marlon Harris, three of the deaths were heart attacks, one was a fatal asthma attack, and another one was a stroke. However, since the facility had moved to Pontiac from being in five different buildings in nearby Troy, Michigan, some workers suspect their working conditions are the problem. Longtime employee Steve Western told WDIV Detroit that after the move, “It just became a horrible place to work. We’re consolidated in one facility. In my 22 years, there’s never been no deaths. Since we got here, four or five people have passed away.” Patricia Wilkerson, another employee, told Fox 2 Detroit, “These people didn’t go home or go to the hospital. They actually died on the premises here. To see people get carried out in that fashion is disheartening.”
The facility opened in 2008 and is the U.S. Postal Service’s processing and distribution center in the country. About 1,200 people work in the 70 acre facility, which processes mail for approximately half of Michigan’s lower peninsula. It’s located on a site that was formerly used as a plant for manufacturing automobiles which included a foundry. When the site was being redeveloped, a ventilation system and a detection system were installed to monitor and prevent buildups of methane in the building. However, when the postal service decided to take over maintenance of the methane detection system, they ignored advice to resolve problems with faulty sensors.
Methane is an odorless, colorless gas that can cause suffocation when a person is exposed to a large concentration of it in an enclosed space. But even if a buildup of methane wasn’t necessarily the cause of the five employee deaths, high methane levels can make a workplace dangerous since it can increase the risk of an explosion. A spokeswoman for the U.S. Postal Service released a statement saying that they tested the methane levels in mid-January and they were found to be safe. The Postal Service has agreed to have the system inspected and repaired by the end of May.
Roscoe Woods, President of American Postal Workers Union Area Local 480-481, is concerned about the potential presence of methane in the workplace, but isn’t ready to put all the blame on it. He told the Oakland Press that there are a lot of other factors that could have led to those worker deaths, such as overtime hours, too many demands being placed on employees, and unsupportive supervisors. Woods would like the Office of the Inspector General to re-evaluate the facility while considering the overall working conditions of the facility.