At Trane factory in Hamilton, workers fear spread of COVID-19 and demand action

The Trane plant on East State Street in Hamilton.

The top union leader at the Trane factory in Hamilton is calling on the company to protect its workers after she said one employee died as a result of complications from COVID-19 and at least 22 people tested positive for the virus at the factory.

Trane manufactures and distributes heating and air ventilation systems and equipment. More than 1,100 people work at the factory on East State Street in Hamilton near the border of Trenton. The union leader says employees work in close proximity to one another at the factory as assembly line operators and assemblers of HVAC components.

IUE-CWA Local 81455 President Tamika Rittenburg said the rise in confirmed COVID-19 cases at the factory in recent weeks has been alarming. She said the union is aware of at least 22 positive cases, but also claims workers are not informed of new positive cases in a timely manner. The employee who died was one of the employees in charge of distributing PPE to workers, she said.

The union says Trane is failing to protect workers and is not complying with the governor’s executive orders or COVID-19 guidelines for manufacturing facilities issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

“On a daily basis, union members at the factory and warehouse witness first-hand Trane’s non-compliance,” said Rittenburg, “Members justifiably fear that their health, safety, and very lives are put in jeopardy each time they go work. The union’s repeated pleas to secure the company’s compliance with the executive orders and guidelines have fallen on deaf ears.”

Rittenburg wrote three letters to Trane management, the first on April 10, the second on May 1, and the third on May 6 detailing examples of safety issues experienced and observed by union members. She is not aware of Trane management investigating any of the issues. She said the company has only responded with meaningless rhetoric, and that Trane is putting profits over employees’ health and safety.

“They don’t care, even if it makes us sick or kills us,” Rittenburg said. “Their money is our lives.”

A spokesperson for Trane responded to the allegations, saying the company’s first priority is to protect its employees.

“We have rigorous virus transmission control protocols in place at our Trane Trenton facility and across our global organization, and we are in full compliance with all federal and state directives,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “While the majority of our employees are proud to continue serving the essential needs of our customers and communities, we recognize this pandemic can cause a lot of anxiety. We are taking an abundance of caution as we continue to operate and provide jobs and benefits to our local workforce here in Trenton. Most of our employees are working closely with us to ensure we uphold our strict COVID-19 response program.”

According to the company, its policies and protocols are based on the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Protection, World Health Organization, and state and local health authorities. The spokesperson said measures include: active screening; cleaning and disinfecting of work areas, tools, equipment, surfaces, and common areas; social distancing; personal protective equipment, including face covers; physical changes to the plant to avoid gatherings and ensure distancing; and routine audits to make sure all protocols are followed.

“We are proud of the perseverance and resilience of our Trenton colleagues through this unprecedented pandemic,” the spokesperson said.

In the April 10 letter, Rittenberg called for the following measures to protect employees:

  • Immediately close the plant for professional sanitizing of all facilities because
    an employee who later died tested positive for the virus.
  • Require mandatory reporting of a positive COCID-19 test.
  • Each time an employee tests positive for COVID-19, the plant must close
    immediately for professional sanitizing of all facilities.
  • Require that employees who have symptoms of COVID-19 (i.e., fever over 100.4,
    cough, runny nose, sore throat, or difficulty breathing) isolate at home for a minimum of 14 days.
  • If an employee lives with anyone with symptoms of COVID-19 infection, the employee must isolate at home for 14 days.
  • Supervisors and employees must be told to report others with symptoms and
    those people must isolate at home for 14 days.
  • Take the temperature of all employees upon arrival each day at the plant and
    send home anyone with a temperature above 100.4 degrees for 14 days.
  • Supply face masks for all employees to wear at all times while anywhere in the
  • Implement physical distancing of 6 feet in the plant, including the assembly line.
    The floor along the line must be marked in 6-foot intervals
  • All PPE must be sanitized or disposed of, as applicable, after each use to avoid contamination of employees and the environment in the plant.
  • Increase the frequency and depth of sanitizing efforts. There should be a
    thorough cleaning between shifts. Locker rooms and break rooms should be
    cleaned repeatedly all day, hand sanitizer should be provided throughout the
    plant, sanitary wipes should be provided throughout the facility and the
    employees must be trained on using them constantly to clean high-touch
  • All non-essential visitors should be prohibited from the plant and the essential
    ones must be screened for fever and their movement in the plant limited.
  • Train the employees on self-responsibility behaviors – respiratory etiquette,
    handwashing, using hand sanitizers, refraining from physical contact, prohibiting
    the sharing of utensils, cups, beverages, etc., social distancing, and no sharing of
  • Stagger break times and lunchtimes to minimize groups of people at the time
    clocks and in locker rooms and break areas
  • Zone the plant and prohibit employees from wandering into zones where they do
    not need to be to perform their jobs.
  • Discontinue the use of the biometric time clock (scanners which clock in workers
    using their fingerprints).
  • Install better air filters, increase ventilation in the plant and increase the
    percentage of outdoor air that circulates into the system.
  • Require mandatory sanitation breaks where employees stop what they are doing
    to clean their workstations.