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02-10-06 Dannon probing cause of sick workers

By Shelley Grieshop

  Officials at the Dannon Co. in Minster are taking steps to find out why several of their workers have gotten ill while on the job in recent months.

  Last week, three employees were taken from the plant to a local hospital complaining of various symptoms such as headaches and nausea, Michael Neuwirth, public relations director for the company, confirmed Thursday.

  Neuwirth, based at the company's headquarters in White Plains, N.Y., said since December, five of the approximately 390 employees at the local plant have sought medical attention for suspicious illnesses while at work. Several others also have complained of similar symptoms and opted to be treated on site.

  "We're taking this very seriously," Neuwirth said. "We're aware of the situation, and we're aggressively trying to get to the root of the problem."

  Although company officials are not 100 percent sure what is causing workers to become ill, they are addressing all possibilities, he explained. Daily testing has shown there are no problems with any of the yogurt produced.  "At our own initiative we've informed OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Association)," Neuwirth said.

  Although OSHA officials have not yet conducted any tests at the plant, Dannon is "keeping them apprised of the situation," he explained. "We continue to work with them."

  This weekend, when production normally would be in operation, the packaging area will be shut down, he said. Crews on Saturday and Sunday will excavate that area and repair cracks found in the drain lines, Neuwirth said. The packaging area likely will be back in operation by Monday, he added.

  Because some employees have complained of a strong chlorine smell, the chlorinated sanitizer previously used as a cleaning solution has been replaced with iodine, he said.

  Neuwirth said some employees who appear to have a higher sensitivity to smells are being moved to other departments at least temporarily.

  "Our first priority is to protect our workers," he said.

  Neuwirth said local plant officials began taking air readings inside the facility as soon as workers began complaining of illnesses in early December; readings continue to be taken but have yet to show anything abnormal, he said.

  The flow of fresh air throughout the plant has been increased as a precaution, he added. All quality and safety checks performed daily on raw materials and finished products (yogurt) continue to come back normal, he added.

  Rumors that a chemical leak had occurred at the facility are completely false, Neuwirth said.

  Also involved in the investigation are the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Workman's Compensation and the Auglaize County Emergency Management Agency.

  The Minster plant, opened in 1960, is the largest yogurt manufacturing plant in the world, producing 230,000 cups of yogurt per hour. Other Dannon manufacturing plants are located in West Jordan, Utah and Fort Worth, Texas.


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