Just before midnight, on Wednesday, July 7, 2021, at the FedEx Freight Hub in Des Moines, Iowa, a freight handler unloading an inbound line-haul trailer inadvertently punctured a bulk container of formic acid, a federally regulated hazardous material. Hundreds of gallons of this corrosive, toxic1 chemical spilled onto the floor of the trailer, and poured out onto the dock. The freight handler took immediate action, isolating the area and notifying management of the spill, as he had been trained to do. Management radioed hostlers, who pulled the contaminated trailer away from the dock, and immediately tasked freight handlers with cleaning up the spilled chemical. All the while, the forklifts kept running, the shipments kept moving, and the dock staff kept working. There was no interruption.
FedEx Freight managers knew that formic acid is a hazardous chemical. They knew, or should have known, that formic acid is corrosive and toxic, and that exposure to formic acid vapors could potentially cause severe irritation, or even chemical burns to the respiratory tract and any exposed skin. Nevertheless, management told freight handlers to continue working, even as the corrosive fumes became so severe that workers reported being able to smell them from outside the building, in the employee parking lot. Dock workers were never informed that a spill had occurred, or of the nature of the chemical released. Moving freight could not be allowed to stop, for even a moment. Those who did express concerns were given paper surgical masks (designed to block particulates, not chemical vapors) and were ordered to get back to work.
By the end of the night, dozens of freight handlers had reported symptoms of toxic exposure, including severe headaches, watery eyes, severe cough, and a burning sensation in the throat and lungs. Only after the completion of the inbound shift, over 9 hours later, were they released to seek medical attention. Four employees were treated in the hospital emergency room for toxic chemical exposure, and had lost-time injuries. Dozens more workers had similar symptoms but did not seek medical attention, out of fear of reprisal from management. Whether due to a failure of training, or the wrongheaded priorities of managers, under pressure not to compromise the efficient movement of freight, FedEx instead compromised its employees' safety and health.
On August 11, it happened again. While unloading a skid containing jugs of highly toxic, concentrated agricultural pesticide,2,3 a DOT regulated hazardous material, a dock worker punctured the skid with his forklift, pouring the contents of several jugs onto the floor of the trailer. That worker then erroneously carried the leaking skid all the way down the dock, spilling its toxic contents throughout the work area. Yet again, management did not pause operations for even a moment to address the hazardous chemical and ensure employees were protected. Because isolating the area would have interfered with operations on a significant part of dock, work continued as supervisors spread Oil-Dri absorbent granules along the path of the spill. For some time, freight handlers continued their work, unknowingly driving their forklifts directly through a toxic chemical spill.
Management did not inform freight handlers of the acute hazard present throughout their work area. Freight handlers were not given appropriate personal protective equipment, and were offered only paper surgical masks, which give inadequate protection from toxic chemical vapors. Those who reported the overwhelming, noxious odor were told, incorrectly, that it was "not toxic by inhalation,"2,3 and ordered back to work. Management's single-minded determination that the freight must get moved led to the negligent, needless compromise of worker safety, and exposure of employees to a toxic chemical for the second time in barely over a month.
At approximately 9:30pm on Wednesday, August 25, another spill of hazardous material occured at the FedEx Freight DSM service center. A bulk container of a methanol-based chemical, UN1992, Flammable Liquid, Toxic, NOS, spilled onto the dock and into the yard. Supervisors isolated only a small area around the spill, and work continued. The managers on duty retreated to the front office, and refused to answer workers' questions regarding what hazardous chemical they were being exposed to. Investigations are ongoing.