Some inmates exposed to toxic metals: IG report

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Some of the inmates working in a U.S. prison program to break up computer equipment for recycling were exposed to toxic levels of lead and cadmium, according to a report by the Justice Department’s inspector general released on Thursday.

The government-run company that employs prison inmates, called UNICOR, failed to set safety standards for the recycling program dating back to 1997, and once the problems were discovered officials were slow to correct them, the report said.

“Staff and inmates at several BOP (Bureau of Prison) institutions were exposed to levels of cadmium and lead that exceeded OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) levels,” said the report by Inspector General Glenn Fine.

It took until 2003 for UNICOR to begin implementing worker protection measures to limit exposures. Despite referrals to federal prosecutors for possible criminal charges against prison and company staff, none were brought, the report said.

“No action was initiated because of various evidentiary, legal and strategic concerns,” the 200-plus page report said. It was not until 2009 that UNICOR’s recycling program complied with OSHA requirements and operated safely.

The program included breaking down computer monitors which can contain from two to five lbs of lead.

UNICOR failed initially to monitor air quality at its facilities where they broke down the monitors, and where there was monitoring prior to 2003 worker exposures “were at times far higher” than allowed limits for cadmium and lead, the report said.

Most prison staff and inmates were not given the needed protective equipment such as dust masks. In some cases, respirators were provided but were inadequate, according to the report.

The Bureau of Prisons said that its factories no longer perform glass-breaking operations and are now deemed to be operating safely.

“While our factories no longer perform glass breaking operations, we believe that the changes already implemented in our operations and the changes planned will ensure that all of our operations continue to operate as safely as possible,” BOP spokeswoman Traci Billingsley said.

Reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky, editing by Jim Marshall