Ford’s Battery Flagship Socked by Mold Sickness, Workers Say

Several workers work around a crate with black-colored mold visible on the lid

Black-colored mold was visible on shipping crates handled by the workers who are building the BlueOval SK Battery Park factory in Glendale, Kentucky. Workers also reported red-hued mold on the wooden crates.

The smell of mold hit James “Lucky” Dugan the moment he walked into the plant.

Last fall, Dugan was one of thousands of union construction workers to arrive in small-town Glendale, Kentucky, to build a vast factory for Ford and SK On, a South Korean company. The plant, when completed, will make batteries for nearly a million electric pickup trucks each year.

When Dugan walked in, huge wooden boxes containing battery-making machines, largely shipped from overseas, were laid across the mile-long factory floor. Black streaks on those wooden boxes, plus the smell, immediately raised alarm bells for workers. But for months, those concerns were met with little remedy from the contractors hired by BlueOval to oversee construction.

Dugan and scores of others now believe they are in the midst of a health crisis at the site. “We don’t get sick pay,” Dugan said. “You’re sick, you’re out of luck.”

The BlueOval SK Battery Park, billed to open in 2025, is a banner project for President Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act, a program of public subsidies and financing to companies moving away from fossil fuels. The Department of Energy has pledged to support the construction of three BlueOval plants in Tennessee and Kentucky with a $9.2 billion low-cost loan.

But under all the high-tech green fanfare, several construction workers, including some who wished to be anonymous, say the site has been gripped by mold and respiratory illness—medieval hazards that workers feel managers neglected in the pressure to quickly open the plant.

Jason Shaffer, a fellow member with Dugan of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, was tasked with setting electrical wiring right above laborers breaking down wooden crates. He believes that mold exposure led to the illness that knocked him out of work for over a week.

“Three nights ago, I couldn’t get air in my lungs," Shaffer said in early February. “I was seeing fireflies, coughing up chunks like white leather all night, crawling across the floor.” A nearby clinic diagnosed Shaffer with a bacterial infection of the lungs, but he has yet to get a diagnosis and care for his mold exposure.

Amid contractor companies’ rush to build the plant for Ford, many have required their union workers to build on 12-hour shifts, seven days a week. Despite months of worker concerns, managers waited until early February to take basic precautions against the mold—precautions that might slow construction.

Three months after workers first brought their complaints to management, the Kentucky Education and Labor Cabinet is now investigating the issue. That state agency, along with managers at BlueOval and two contracting companies, did not respond to requests for comment. But the president of an electrical contractor at BlueOval, in an email to a site manager which workers obtained and shared on Facebook, wrote he considers it “inevitable” that contractors will finally shut down the site for a mold cleanup for “most of March.”

The start of this Kentucky green jobs boom reminds Shaffer of what workers faced in the years before unions: “It’s production supersedes all, even life.”


Since construction began on the Kentucky BlueOval factory in early 2022, workers have raised safety issues.

Electrical workers complained to foremen about the scarce, unheated outdoor portajohns that contractors often left uncleaned and overflowing. The day before a state safety agency inspection last month, Shaffer says, contractors rolled in new portajohns. Another worker sent extensive photos to management of structural concerns in the building, where he had circled joints and supports he considered deeply unsafe.

The building structure was largely in place by spring 2023. Soon after, workers say the sub-contractor Lesco began directing laborers to haul the heavy equipment crates inside and break them down on the factory floor.

Although Shaffer raised concerns about the black streaks and smell from the boxes early in the fall, contractors didn’t shift procedure. In November, with a cold and wet winter rolling in, the general contractor Abel decided to close the huge bay doors on the building, which had previously helped keep the area ventilated.


That’s when workers say they started to fall sick with respiratory illnesses that kept coming back. At least a few have been diagnosed with Covid or flu. But others who are sick said they have tested negative for those viruses, while struggling to get mold tests. Far from their homes in this sparse stretch of Kentucky, on breaks between marathon shifts, many have struggled to get health care at all.

In December, Dugan drove to a clinic and a distant hospital where he was “told I had the flu, then told I had a pulmonary condition. Finally I had to go to the ER in an ambulance, I couldn’t breathe, and got an X ray, which found something in my lungs.”

Worker complaints piled up until, on December 8, Abel management hired the firm Environmental Testing & Consulting of Kentucky to take “limited samples” for mold. Their report, sent to Abel less than one week later, found seven types of mold inside the wooden crates, including three in “heavy” concentrations. It also noted an “intense mold odor” inside the containers.

To limit exposure, the report included a recommendation for handling the wooden boxes: “DO NOT PUT INSIDE.”

Workers say they first saw the report in early January, and Lesco management continued to bring crates inside and break them down there until early February. In that time, Shaffer said, another 15 workers he knows on site have been ill. “Basically everybody I know on the job says they’ve been sick repeatedly since they started here.” An electrical worker, who wanted to remain anonymous due to concerns about his employment, said he knew 10 co-workers who had taken mold spit tests in recent weeks, with five returning positive.


A January 19 notice from Abel addresses the mold concerns but seems to downplay the situation, casting the odor as “slight” and stating that reports by two environmental testing agencies found the mold to be non-hazardous. The company instructed workers with pre-existing conditions or those who are “overly sensitive to molds/dust” to wear a disposable mask.



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Paula Schenck, environmental specialist at the University of Connecticut, said that mold exposure, particularly indoors and over a long period of time, could cause health issues.

“Moldy smells and evidence of water damage does correlate with respiratory symptoms in some people, irrespective of what sampling you do,” she said, noting that anyone who thinks they are having mold-induced respiratory issues should see their doctor. “Equally important, the moldy smell is an indication that there are other things—dust mites, critters, bacteria. There’s a whole biological soup that can then be aerosolized that can cause respiratory symptoms.”

Schenck cautioned that workers’ positive mold tests could only prove they’d been exposed, not that mold was causing their illness. But the confirmed presence of mold on-site, she said, indicated the need for serious precautions.

With over a 1,000 electrical workers on the BlueOval site, many spread the word about mounting illnesses on their breaks and over Facebook. Dugan organized a weekly “Brotherhood Night” for IBEW members to gather at a bar or restaurant. Recently, that gathering became a fundraiser to help the family members of “sparkies” laid out by illness, or who needed car repairs to move to a new job.

Although Dugan, Shaffer, and other members say their union stewards on site helped press their concerns to management, they say that local and international IBEW officers who visited the facility scoffed at their concerns. Dugan says a local officer refused to file a grievance on his behalf about the mold in January. One worker requested to stay anonymous out of concern that union officials might withhold his future job placements if he spoke out. Officers with the IBEW local and district did not return requests for comment.

While the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration has no specific standard for mold, Debbie Berkowitz, former OSHA chief of staff and fellow at Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative, said that OSHA could still cite employers for failing to protect workers’ health. OSHA recommends that workers handling mold-contaminated materials be provided with an N-95 mask, at a minimum.

Kentucky, however, runs its own worker safety program—one that is notorious for taking a more lenient and pro-industry approach to enforcement than OSHA. The state’s labor cabinet is now investigating the situation and visited the construction site in late January after receiving complaints from workers.

Records show that, in the past 11 months, the Kentucky agency has opened 12 investigations into contractors over health or safety complaints at the BlueOval site. Half of those cases were closed without any penalty or finding of wrongdoing, and at least two were accidents that resulted in the companies changing procedures; the other six investigations are still ongoing.

Penalties for violations in Kentucky are lower than at the federal level, and the state will only accept complaints from the workers themselves, meaning a wealth of non-employee complaints go ignored. In 2018, the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting found that the agency had “failed to properly investigate nearly every single worksite death in two years,” and OSHA’s audit that year found that the state-run agency was investigating fewer workplaces.

On February 1, local TV channel WDRB aired a story about worker mold concerns and illnesses at the BlueOval site. In the days after, Shaffer says, Abel management finally started making changes. “They’re handing out masks, trying to get more people to wear them. They say they’re going to bring in a third party contractor to open the boxes outside.” A notice from Abel dated February 3 says that the company will start providing workers with suits, goggles, dust masks, and gloves, as well as spraying the wooden crates with a bleach solution.

But according to the Environmental Testing & Consulting report, mold issues in BlueOval’s supply chain “are not going to change any time soon.”

“Roughly 1,500 out of 12,000 seaworthy metal containers are on-site as of now. It may not be possible to stop this contamination from happening considering the many years of planning taken to begin the construction of the battery plant,” inspectors wrote.

Along with dozens of other workers they know, Dugan and Shaffer have volunteered for layoffs and plan to move to new jobs. They expect less-seasoned workers will fill their shoes.

A looming shortage of skilled hands has at least one contractor considering dirty tricks. In the internal email where Lighthouse Electric president Anton Mikec said a March BlueOval shutdown looked “inevitable” for mold cleanup, he also asked for a list of BlueOval workers. His goal: make sure to “turn them around at the door” at his company’s Indiana jobsite, so they’d be more likely to stay laid off and hungry to work at BlueOval in April.

To stop that kind of opportunistic blacklisting by construction bosses, IBEW and many building trades have won contract rights to a union hiring hall that handles worker dispatch. In the new manufacturing building boom, it may take union pressure to enforce that hard-won right.


Since it passed in August 2022, the Biden administration has trumpeted the Inflation Reduction Act as a crowning achievement, allocating a landmark $369 billion to climate and clean energy programs. At $9.2 billion, the BlueOval loan is not only the largest IRA incentive, but also the largest financial backing offered by the federal government to an automaker since the 2009 financial crisis.

The state of Kentucky has also shown unprecedented support for the project in the form of a $250 million upfront forgivable loan. According to the non-profit government watchdog Good Jobs First, the loan is the “biggest economic development deal in Kentucky history,” as well as “likely the most generous corporate subsidy the state has ever offered.”

These public subsidies have gently encouraged union labor, but not mandated it. Ford has not committed to bring BlueOval manufacturing workers under its master contract with the United Auto Workers, even after the union’s 2023 strike won unionization of similar battery plants at GM and Stellantis.

But even with fully union construction at the BlueOval Kentucky site, workers said the grueling shifts and outbreak of illness left them worried about the direction of the building boom.

“We’re all scared because we know we could be carrying mold on our clothes back to our families, exposing the community,” said Dugan. “This is corporate America walking all over us.”

Schuyler Mitchell is an investigative reporter and editor based in Brooklyn. Keith Brower Brown is Labor Notes' Labor-Climate organizer.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes Issue #540-541, March/April 2024. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.