NIOSH to visit Escanaba mill second time, collect environmental samples

Billerud Paper Mill
Billerud Paper Mill(WLUC)
Published: Apr. 18, 2023 at 1:28 PM EDT
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ESCANABA, Mich. (WLUC) - The National Institute for Occupational Health (NIOSH) has detailed its March visit to the Escanaba Billerud Mill and says it plans to visit the mill again this week.

On March 27 and 28, health officials and union representatives for the Escanaba mill’s employees met at the mill for an on-site hazard evaluation at the request of Billerud.

NIOSH said present at the meeting was Billerud’s health and safety director, the state epidemiologist with MDHHS, the medical director for Public Health Delta & Menominee Counties (PHDM), the director for Michigan Occupational Safety & Health Administration (MIOSHA), and representatives from unions USW Local 21 and Teamsters 406. In addition, the NIOSH field team— consisting of a health scientist, industrial hygienist, epidemiologist, laboratorian, and medical officer— visited, accompanied by a fungal epidemiologist and fungal laboratorian from the Mycotic Diseases Branch in the CDC.

In an email to TV6 Tuesday, NIOSH said its team of investigators will return to the Billerud Escanaba Mill April 20-29 and will meet with employees to offer them a Blastomyces urine antigen test. They will also administer a work and health questionnaire to those employees who volunteer to complete it. NIOSH said it will also administer the questionnaire to employees with already confirmed and probable blastomycosis.

This evaluation, the agency said, may identify additional potential cases of blastomycosis and will help to better understand what factors increase workers’ risk for infection. According to NIOSH, employees with possible symptoms of blastomycosis or with positive urinary antigen tests will be advised to see their personal healthcare providers for appropriate follow-up care.

The agency said it will also conduct environmental sampling at the site.

In the meantime, NIOSH has provided a list of recommendations for Billerud to follow while the NIOSH health hazard evaluation is ongoing. Those recommendations include:

  • Continue to make NIOSH approved N95® disposable filtering-facepiece respirators available to all employees for voluntary use to minimize exposure to Blastomyces, especially for employees who might have a weakened immune system or other high risk underlying medical conditions.
  • Inspect heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems, and following the manufacturers’ recommended maintenance schedules.
  • Contract with a licensed ventilation engineer or building scientist to inspect ductwork for water incursion or microbial growth.
  • Limit activities that involve disrupting soil, such as excavation.
  • Continue to encourage employees who develop symptoms to seek care from their healthcare provider.

TV6 also asked NIOSH if the death of an employee has altered the course of the investigation or the resources made available.

In response, NIOSH said, “We were saddened to learn of the employee’s death. We are fully engaged and continue to respond to this investigation.”

The agency said investigation protocol and resource allocation remains the same.

To date, there have been 21 confirmed cases and 76 probable cases of blastomycosis identified, all among mill employees or visitors to the mill. TV6 expects to receive a weekly update from PHDM about the investigation and those numbers by Friday.