Union calls for expanded testing, cleaning after U.P. paper mill fungal outbreak
The United Steelworkers union is calling for more testing and cleaning at paper mills across the industry following an outbreak of blastomycosis, a rare fungal infection, at an Upper Peninsula paper mill that has killed one worker and sickened at least 21 others as of Thursday.
The union represents 850,000 workers employed across several fields across the country, including the paper industry.
The outbreak is affiliated with the Escanaba Billerud Paper Mill. The local health department, Public Health Delta and Menominee Counties, was first notified that several employees at the mill were sick with atypical pneumonia on Feb. 28.
“We send our deepest condolences to the family and friends of the contractor who lost his life to this infection,” USW International President Tom Conway said in a news release Saturday.
“Moving forward, we cannot allow this to happen again. Rather than waiting to see if cases develop at other paper mills, management across the industry must be proactive and institute robust safeguards now,” he noted.
Twenty-one confirmed and 76 probable cases have been identified and associated with the Escanaba Billerud Paper Mill as of Friday. All 97 cases are employees or contractors at the mill, 12 have been hospitalized and the worker who died was a contractor, the local health department said in a news release.
The Escanaba mill is owned by Billerud, a Swedish paper and packaging company. They have an effective, collaborative relationship with union leadership and members and “appreciate them walking side-by-side with us through the outbreak,” Billerud spokeswoman Shawn Hall told The News in an email.
The company was not aware of the union’s request for testing and cleaning in paper mills across the industry as of Saturday afternoon, Hall said.
Blastomycosis symptoms include fever, cough, night sweats, muscle aches, weight loss, chest pain, fatigue and skin lesions, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. People become infected when they breathe in microscopic fungal spores and severe blastomycosis can spread from the lungs to the bones, joints and central nervous system.
The fungus lives in soil and decomposing matter like wood and leaves and in the United States it is particularly prevalent in the Great Lakes, according to the CDC. The Upper Peninsula is known as a risk area for infection, the local health department said in a news release on March 9.
Infections are rare and most people who breathe in Blastomyces spores don’t get sick, according to the CDC. An average of 26 cases have been reported in the state of Michigan for the past five years, according to Public Health Delta and Menominee Counties.
Billerud, the mill owners, are working with union leadership, mill employees, the local health department, an industrial hygienist, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and the CDC to investigate the outbreak, according to a Thursday news release.
The source of the infection has not been identified and the company has not received information that indicates the mill is unsafe, Billerud’s North American President Kevin Kuznicki said in the news release.
“As a precautionary measure, we will temporarily idle the Escanaba Mill for up to three weeks to facilitate additional proper cleaning,” Billerud President and CEO Christoph Michalski said in the news release.
The USW confirmed that they are working with management and health officials to find the source of the outbreak in a news release on Saturday.
“The paper industry involves a number of potentially serious hazards, but we’ve made incredible progress in making it safer,” USW International Vice President Leeann Foster said in the news release. “This situation is no different. We must identify and eliminate the problem before it harms more workers.”