Worker Correspondents: Unsafe Conditions in an Aging Carbon Black Factory

By Michael Nolan and a carbon black worker

Workers at the Tokai Carbon manufacturing plant in Borger, Texas work long hours in harsh conditions while uninvolved owners reap the profit. The plant produces a crucial industrial component called carbon black, an ultra-fine carbon powder with valuable uses. In the course of production, workers labor alongside furnaces in a hot atmosphere of dense dust inside an old factory desperately in need of maintenance.

Carbon black is indispensable in the manufacture of many products, including tires and rubber gaskets. The Department of Defense built the Borger plant in the 1940s as part of World War II efforts and sold the plant to private owners after the war’s end. The plant is currently owned by a Japanese company, Tokai Carbon.

The production of carbon black results in a carbon dust with the consistency of baby powder that hangs in the air, caking on every surface and coating the clothes and skin of workers, who cough, hack, and scrub vigorously in the shower at work after clocking out to get it out of their throat and off their skin.

The workers are told very little about the long-term effects of exposure to the powder. The International Agency for Research on Cancer considers carbon black dust possibly carcinogenic to humans depending on the circumstances of exposure, and the Center for Disease Control publishes guidelines on safe exposure limits and the potential need for respiratory protection.

“They tell us that it’s harmless. You would think logic tells you that, like anything that’s a particulate matter, it’s probably not good for you,” said one worker. The combustion of petrochemicals also produces carcinogenic byproducts that need to be monitored, but workers are not informed about this monitoring or whether it is even happening.

As part of keeping the plant running continuously, workers are put on the DuPont shift schedule so that a crew of four can keep the plant in operation 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Workers have 12 hours on and 12 hours off, alternating three and four days a week. The 12-hour shifts almost always go longer, leaving workers with less than 12 hours in a day to clean off the black powder, commute, see their families, eat, and sleep. For half of their days off, workers are “on call” so that the plant doesn’t need to close if someone calls in sick, and workers sometimes have to work for over 20 days in a row.

Workers can make up to $40/hour, an attractive wage on which a worker can buy a house and provide for a family in rural northern Texas. “I can’t say we’re working these terrible conditions and getting paid peanuts. … It helps provide my family with a decent middle-class life. I’m certainly not getting rich, but we, my kids, don’t want for much. So that is the thing that keeps people working there.”

The stark contrast between the workers’ lot and that of upper management is clear. One worker said, “They’re sitting in their climate-controlled office and they go home just as clean as they were when they got there; they ain’t risking their neck and they’re reaping all the rewards.”

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