Federal prison staff and inmates faced primitive and hazardous working conditions in an electronic waste recycling program that violated more than 30 job safety requirements, according to a long-awaited government report.

Capping a more than four-year investigation, the blistering report said recycling workers were repeatedly exposed to high levels of cadmium and lead, both toxic metals, because of a pervasive indifference to safety by senior officials of Federal Prison Industries, a for-profit corporation within the U.S. Bureau of Prisons that aims to teach job skills to inmates.

As FairWarning reported earlier this month, Prison Industries, also known as UNICOR, had been under investigation by the Justice Department’s inspector general since 2006. It employs some 17,000 inmates at more than 100 prison factories that make everything from office furniture to vehicle components — though the probe was limited to the recycling plants it currently runs at seven U.S. prisons.

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The recycling program, which launched in the mid-1990s and at its peak included 10 prison sites, takes in computers, monitors, and other devices, refurbishing some and dismantling others to salvage electronic components, metals and glass. The devices contain toxic metals such as arsenic, mercury, beryllium, along with cadmium and lead, and are dangerous to take apart without proper ventilation, respiratory protection and training.

The report describes a culture of disregard for safety that prevailed through the early years of the program, and that included ignoring or concealing hazards to maintain production schedules and cut costs. For example, the report said, managers repeatedly sought to deceive safety officials by stopping or slowing production prior to inspections, “thereby rendering the work conditions unrepresentative of normal conditions.”

Managers also ignored information about hazards “that should have caused them to suspend, modify, or postpone” operations “or at least to conduct further evaluation and testing,” according to the report.

This “sometimes resulted in violations of OSHA regulations and exposures of staff and inmates to toxic metals. As a pattern, we believe this conduct evidenced willful indifference to the safety of staff and inmates, and constituted gross mismanagement.’’

As UNICOR expanded the recycling operation, new plants typically were set up without adequate planning or professional assistance  to control hazards and comply with the law, according to the report. It quoted a former warden at the federal prison in Atwater, Calif., where recycling began in 2002, who described it as “kind of a willy-nilly, no written policy program…They said we’re going to do this and they just [did it], by the seat of your pants.”

However, the worst violations occurred from the late 1990s until mid-2003, when UNICOR began to make safety improvements, the report said. For the most part, the recycling plants were in compliance with occupational standards by 2009, the investigation found.

Moreover, the most hazardous operation, glass-breaking, was halted at all of the recycling plants in May, 2009, the report said. Glass-breaking involves smashing cathode ray tubes, which typically contain two to five pounds of lead. It can produce high levels of toxic dust, and at some of the plants flying glass frequently cut inmates.

In a prepared statement, the Bureau of Prisons thanked the inspector general for performing “a detailed analysis that greatly assisted and will continue to assist our agency.”

“We are pleased that the factories were found to be currently operating safely,” the statement said. “The continued safety of both staff and inmates alike is a top priority” for UNICOR. “As such, we are committed to ensuring compliance with all applicable health, safety, and environmental requirements.

Along with Atwater, prison recycling plants are in operation in Fort Dix, N.J., Leavenworth, Kan., Lewisburg, Pa., Marianna, Fla., Texarkana, Texas, and Tucson, Ariz. Recycling has been suspended at the prison in Elkton, Ohio, following extensive cleanup of lead and cadmium residues. In 2009, UNICOR employed 860 inmate recycling workers earning from 23 cents to $1.15 an hour.

The report is likely to provide ammunition for legal assaults on the Bureau of Prisons.

As FairWarning reported, the bureau faces demands by prison employees at at least two institutions for retroactive hazardous duty pay because of working conditions in the recycling plants.

Last fall, the agency quietly paid about $1 million to settle a pay grievance by the union for employees at Elkton in eastern Ohio, where air tests revealed cadmium levels as much as 450 times higher than federal standards. The Elkton settlement involves back pay from 2002-2008. The union and Bureau of Prisons are still wrestling over retroactive pay for prior years.

At Atwater, arbitration over hazard pay is scheduled for December if the case isn’t settled first.

Meanwhile, lawyers for current and former employees of the prison at Marianna, Fla., have sued the Bureau of Prisons to extract records concerning the recycling plant there. They plan to use the information in filing personal injury claims on behalf of the workers.

Covering 223 pages of narrative and findings, plus more than 1,200 pages of related documents, the report draws on more than 200 interviews and more than 10,000 documents, the inspector general said. The probe was triggered by a whistleblower complaint by  Leroy Smith, a safety officer who raised alarms about the lack of safety precautions at Atwater prison, but was rebuffed by his superiors.

Smith, now a safety officer at the federal lockup in Tucson, said Thursday that despite its massive detail, he believed the report shortchanged some key issues. He also said he was “appalled’’ that no one in a leadership position ‘’is being charged with criminal misconduct.’’

The report said that investigators had determined that 11 UNICOR and Bureau employees “committed either misconduct or performance failures in their work related to the e-waste recycling program, some of which endangered staff and inmates.”

Some instances of potential criminal conduct were referred to the environmental crimes unit of the Justice Department and to U.S. Attorneys in Ohio and New Jersey, the report revealed. But it said that after lengthy investigations no action was taken due to “ evidentiary, legal, and strategic concerns.”

The inspector general reserved the most scathing criticism for Larry Novicky, general manager of Unicor’s recycling business group from 2000 until 2009, when he was succeeded by Robert Tonetti, a former Environmental Protection Agency scientist. Novicky could not be reached, but had complained of being a scapegoat for lapses of the recycling program, the report said.

Though no charges were filed for safety violations, the report said that information obtained during the investigation led to convictions of three Florida men for theft of government property and other crimes related to mishandling of equipment meant for recycling.

The report noted that the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, one of a string of federal agencies assisting the probe, was unable to link any health problems identified by prison staff and inmates to the recycling work. However, it said, NIOSH officials could not rule out the possibility of future effects from past cadmium and lead exposures. Nor could they estimate the potential risk because air testing and medical surveillance had been so spotty.

The most common exposures were to lead, which can damage the kidneys and lead to high blood pressure, fatigue and depression, and to cadmium, which can also cause kidney damage and raise the risk of cancer.

The report said the inspector general had made a dozen recommendations to improve safety oversight, and the Bureau of Prisons had agreed to implement them.

However, suggesting that change sometimes comes slow, the report said that as of June the bureau still had a single certified industrial hygienist to serve 115 institutions and 103 UNICOR factories.