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WCCO Investigation leads to worker safety legislation

WCCO Investigation leads to creation of worker safety legislation in Minnesota
WCCO Investigation leads to creation of worker safety legislation in Minnesota 03:17

MINNEAPOLIS — For the past five years, WCCO has exposed the ongoing pollution problems at Water Gremlin, from releasing a cancer-causing chemical to hazardous waste violations and lead migration. The plant in White Bear Township now has new owners and a new name, but its past will mean a better future for workers across Minnesota.

In the end of session frenzy, a bill passed that addresses worker safety.

"Because I was in the middle of it," Steven Wurtz said when asked why it matters to him. "You know, I experienced this. I seen what happened at the company."

Wurtz first brought his concerns to WCCO last year, questioning the level of allowed lead exposure for people who work with it. At the time, he worked for Water Gremlin, a manufacturing plant that makes lead battery terminals. He was so determined to make a difference, he testified before the Senate Labor Committee.

"You know, I was very excited when I talked to the Senate. They had an open ear," Wurtz said.

DFL Senator Heather Gustafson was one of those open ears, taking on the issue after following WCCO's investigations into the pollution problems at Water Gremlin.

"We found that the level of lead that workers were exposed to was also a problem. We hadn't really tackled that yet," Gustafson said.

She carried the bill that now requires state agencies that deal with worker safety and health to look at new rules.

"The idea is that the agencies will decide how much is an acceptable amount of blood lead level for workers to be as safe as possible while they're at work and before they can come back to work," Gustafson said.

There's funding attached to it so the Department of Labor and Industry and the state health department can update the rule. A total of $174,000 for technical assistance is available through 2026. The new rules will impact companies across the state in areas like construction, manufacturing, transportation and remediation.

"It did cost a little bit of money and this is not a budget year so that tells me that this is a priority to our caucus and to our, you know, our leaders, which is great," Gustafson said.

The last lead standard was set by federal OSHA more than four decades ago. Gustafson calls it outdated.

"We now know a lot more about lead. And so we're now just learning the effects of that and how serious they are. So the work will have to continue," Gustafson. "Minnesota should have businesses that have a safe environment for their workers, and especially if there's anything that would expose their families to the concerns that they might be seeing in our workplace, I can't sit by and do nothing."

Wurtz says it's been a hard road, but he's proud this new law will protect more people.

"Absolutely," Wurtz said when asked if speaking up was worth it. "I'm seeing results, I'm seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. So it gives me huge hope for the next step."

Next, the health and labor departments will research existing standards and agree on rule changes. That process will likely include a public hearing. It could take two years to complete.

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