Fires, faulty alarms, acid spills, and gas leaks — Stryker staff raising safety concerns for years

A protected disclosure made to the Health and Safety Authority by six workers identifies a number of incidents in 2019 and 2020. Eoin English and Aoife Moore report
Fires, faulty alarms, acid spills, and gas leaks — Stryker staff raising safety concerns for years

Stryker's Springhill site. Workers at the company’s three sites in East Cork have been raising safety concerns for almost three years.

Workers at Stryker’s three sites in East Cork have been raising safety concerns for almost three years. The American multinational medical technology company is a major employer in Cork and Limerick.

However, a fire and evacuation of the Tullagreen site in Carrigtwohill in East Cork on August 6 and 7, 2020, was the final straw for staff.

Six workers from across the three sites made a protected disclosure to the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) listing some of the major incidents and concerns. These included:

  • May 23, 2019: Fire alarms failed to activate after smoke from a fire filled the ‘hand finishing’ area of the Tullagreen plant;
  • May 25, 2019: The Springhill site in East Cork was evacuated after gas leaked from a solvent tank. Staff were violently sick in the clean room. Gardaí, firefighters, and ambulances attended. Three workers were taken to hospital;
  • July 9, 2019: Days after a worker raised health and safety concerns about a machine in the Tullagreen plant, it went on fire. The protected disclosure claims an incident report confirmed that the safety mechanism (fire suppressant) was turned off on the machine before the fire broke out;
  • July 18, 2019: An industrial hoover exploded, causing a spill of nitric acid. Workers were not advised of the exposure to the material;
  • August 26, 2019: Four people were violently sick in a clean room at the Tullagreen site. They were taken to SouthDoc, then brought back to the plant, but then taken to Cork University Hospital;
  • September 3, 2019: Another fire on a machine in Tullagreen. A fire alarm did not sound automatically; the alarm had to be triggered through a break-glass unit;
  • October 2, 2019: A worker at the Tullagreen site was removed from the clean room after a nose-bleed and suffering from headaches;
  • November 2, 2019: A worker at the Tullagreen site was removed from the clean room, again suffering from a nose-bleed and headaches;
  • November 2019: Siptu launches a petition calling on Stryker management to adhere to health and safety law.
  • January 17, 2020: Fire breaks out on a machine at the Springhill site. No fire alarm sounds. There is a verbal order to evacuate the site;
  • January 20, 2020: Fire breaks out on a machine at the Tullagreen site;
  • August 24, 2020: The Tullagreen site is evacuated after a major fire in the ‘wet scrubber’. The fire was tackled locally first, using 15 fire extinguishers. Five units of firefighters were called.

"The standards are on the floor," one of the whistleblowers told the Irish Examiner.

"In recent weeks, we've had three major occurrences that led to evacuations in the Carrigtwohill site, that's a microcosm of what's gone on in the last three years.

"The radiation leaks, gas leaks, argon leaks, solvents escaping and harming people. We've had people hospitalised across the three sites.

"There's always a perception of production before everything else and it’s writ large, production before health.

"It's not enough to make us aware of the risk, but say use a broken machine anyway, it's not acceptable.

"We are worried something more serious is going to happen."

Conditions at the factory have been repeatedly raised with the HSA by Cork East Sinn Féin TD Pat Buckley who received a number of representations from staff, seen by the Irish Examiner.

Mr Buckley said while the company engages with Siptu at its Limerick facility, it has refused to engage with Siptu at its Tullagreen and Springhill sites.

This is despite two Labour Court recommendations, both in October 2019, that the company would recognise Siptu as the chosen representative for workers at these two sites. The company did not attend those Labour Court hearings.

'Improper intrusion'

In 2020, Stryker accused Cork City Council of “an improper intrusion” into company-union matters after councillors formally backed calls for the company to engage with Siptu and address health and safety concerns at its East Cork plants.

The accusation is contained in correspondence from the company to the city council, which has been seen by the Irish Examiner.

The tone and content of the company’s reply have been described as "unprecedented” by sources familiar with these matters.

It followed the adoption by city councillors of a motion tabled last year by three Sinn Féin councillors, Kenneth Collins, Mick Nugent, and now retired councillor Henry Cremin, which requested that council management would write to senior Stryker management at the East Cork plants requesting that they engage with the worker representatives, Siptu, in line with two Labour Court recommendations, and to “specifically and urgently” resolve the health and safety concerns of Stryker workers at the Tullagreen, Springhill, and Carrigtwohill facilities without delay.

It also commended the ‘union made is stronger’ campaign.

The adoption of the motion at a council meeting on March 9, 2020, led to the council’s corporate affairs directorate writing to Stryker management, as requested, on March 19, 2020, to bring the matter to their attention.

Such letters are a statement of the city council’s position. They are not an invitation to debate. Most letters of this kind are simply acknowledged and noted.

But in what sources described as an "unprecedented" response, a senior Stryker HR director, Mairead Hogan, wrote back to the council on April 17, 2020, to say she was “surprised and disappointed” at the council’s intervention in a union recognition matter between Stryker and Siptu.

“It is the position of the company that the council’s endorsement of Siptu's claim and connected campaign is a gross deviation from the State’s and Government’s voluntarist position on union recognition in collective employment matters and therefore an improper intrusion on the part of the council,” she wrote.

She also expressed concerns “at the unsubstantiated assertions” in the letter “alleging shortcomings in health and safety" across any of the Stryker sites.

“For the avoidance of doubt, Stryker absolutely rejects any such allegations,” she said.

“Stryker operates the highest level of health and safety processes and equipment rightly expected within any global medical device company.

“Any employee with concerns is encouraged to bring these up with local management for immediate response.

“Alternatively if you wish to provide me with further specifics and details we will investigate same.” 

Amid growing concerns, staff made a protected disclosure to the HSA in September 2020.

A response from the HSA to Mr Buckley that same month stated: "The authority is satisfied that the matters have been adequately and satisfactorily addressed."

However, on October 8 this year, another solvent was spilled, raising further staff concerns.

In the hope that it might spark some action, staff sent the protected disclosure to Tánaiste Leo Varadkar’s office. A spokesperson confirmed it was received on November 3.

'Culture of safety'

A Stryker spokesperson told the Irish Examiner: "The health and safety of our employees and communities is our top priority. We work together with our employees to ensure we meet all regulatory requirements and drive a culture of safety.

"We also work constructively with all regulatory bodies, including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Health and Safety Authority (HSA).

"As a heavily regulated industry, we are subject to frequent unannounced and scheduled inspections and we have had no enforcements against any of [our] sites at Tullagreen, Springhill or Anngrove.

"People [are] one of our core values and we are committed to a policy of engaging directly with our team members."

Stryker, which has had an Irish presence since 1998, makes a range of medical devices and products here including hip and knee system implants, bone cement and bone substitutes, surgical blades and micro-rotary burs which are used for cutting, drilling, burring, and shaping bone in various types of surgery.

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