Behind America's tear gas business boom: Low-wage workers and angry neighbors

“They have millions of dollars. I don't think it’s right or fair that they can do that with no ramifications, no nothing," one local resident said.
Police in tactical gear walk through tear gas during a protest against George Floyd's killing in Minneapolis police custody, in Atlanta on June 1, 2020.Dustin Chambers / Reuters
By Leticia Miranda

Plumes of tear gas became a common sight last month as police tried to control largely peaceful demonstrations swelling across the country after the killing of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis. But as protesters scrambled to flee the fumes, two American companies have profited.

The United States dominates the burgeoning nonlethal weapons industry that supplies crowd-control solutions such as tear gas to governments across the world, from confrontations at the U.S.-Mexico border involving the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, to Middle East conflicts. Two global defense manufacturers in particular stand out: Safariland, based in Jacksonville, Florida, and Combined Systems, Inc., which operates out of Jamestown, Pennsylvania, have seen their fortunes — and public scrutiny — soar in recent years.

These two companies have flourished despite complaints from residents near their factories about fumes, pollutants leaking into the local water systems from Combined Systems, Inc., and workers suffering injuries at both companies.

Safariland, a $450 million company run by the investor Warren Kanders, relies on a rotation of low-wage temporary employees, according to NBC News interviews with eight workers. Six workers with Safariland said that they were paid between $10 and $12 an hour with no benefits, and sometimes were expected to work up to 12 hours a day, six days a week, to meet the company’s production orders for less lethal weapons.

“They were always pushing employees past their limits,” one Safariland worker said, adding he resigned in June.

Don Smith leads Combined Systems, Inc. as its CEO. Safariland and Combined Systems did not respond to NBC News’ requests for comment.

Police departments across the country continue to rely on what are called "less lethal products" to control crowds, as seen most recently during protests last month demanding social justice amid growing anger over racial inequities.

The 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention banned the use of tear gas in warfare, but it does not stop countries from using it to quell domestic uprisings. The substance — a powder that is pressurized, then released as an aerosol, causing sinus and skin irritation — became a popular crowd-control device in the early 20th century after it was first used by French police in 1912. Law enforcement agencies use strategies such as tear gas because it is unlikely to kill someone compared to a gun, said Sid Heal, a retired commander with the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department.

“Tear gas is the single most nonlethal option to control riots and looting,” he said. “If we take this away, police will be forced to use another option. Because they still have the duty to resolve the problem, they will have to use something that doesn’t work as well or has harsher consequences.”

While there are few public statistics to quantify the U.S. demand for nonlethal weapons, Safariland won a $7.3 million contract with the New York City Police Department in 2016 for ballistic equipment.

Combined Systems received about $1.7 million in federal government orders for nonlethal weapons between January and June of this year, according to an NBC News analysis of federal contract data. It has also provided training and nonlethal weapons to law enforcement agencies across the country, including $5,160 in equipment to Littleton, Colorado; and training with agencies in Rosenberg, Texas and Maryland Heights, Missouri.

“As a company with engineering roots, CSi has always actively pursued the development of new products made to the highest standards of quality and reliability to ensure the most consistent and reliable performance in the market,” the company said in a 2011 marketing brochure. “CSi has been able to achieve and maintain these unmatched standards because the CSi employees understand the nature of your business and the simple fact that when a customer needs a [Combined Tactical Systems] product, it is during a critical situation.”

Low pay, temporary work

As the demand for less lethal weapons continues to rise, so does work at tear gas factories. In 2015, Safariland opened its headquarters in Jacksonville, taking advantage of a $1.1 million tax break. It has since received additional incentives to expand hiring, including $876,400 in 2017 to add 152 new jobs, according to the Jacksonville Community Redevelopment Agency’s annual report.

Safariland announced in June that it will divest from its nonlethal business, Defense Technology, though the new entity will be led by Defense Technology’s current leadership and is keeping its operations in Casper, Wyoming. Full-time factory workers at the plant often burn out or fail to meet performance standards, and the company relies on local staffing agencies to fill positions, according to NBC interviews with six former Safariland employees. Safariland did not respond to NBC News' request for comment on its use of temporary work.

“The turnover levels were high,” said a former floor supervisor at Safariland’s Jacksonville plant who was hired through a temp agency called Remedy Staffing. “Some of it was dangerous. You’re dealing with chemicals, sharp edges, a lot of machinery, a lot of heat.”

From 2015 to June this year, medical personnel were called to one Safariland production plant 31 times for incidents ranging from fainting, lacerations, chemical exposures and illnesses.

Between January 2015 and June 10 of this year, medical personnel were called to Safariland 31 times for incidents ranging from fainting, lacerations, chemical exposures and illnesses, according to the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department. One Safariland worker hired through ManpowerGroup in Casper sued the company in 2018 after a tear gas machine that he alleged was known to malfunction smashed his fingertip, which then had to be amputated. Safariland denied the allegations. In March, the worker was awarded $59,500 in damages.

Another temporary worker at the same plant, also hired through ManpowerGroup, said that beginning in May, as orders spilled in from police departments across the country responding to the protests, he worked 12 hour days for seven days straight, earning $10 an hour to assemble bean bag projectiles. While he wasn’t handling chemicals directly, he said the tear gas chemicals would waft over into his area of the factory, irritating his sinuses.

“It feels like your sinuses are on fire — runny nose, burning eyes,” he said. “If you get the chemicals on your skin, it feels like your skin is burning.”

Safariland did not respond to NBC News’ request for comment.

Another temp worker, who spent six months assembling tear gas canisters at Safariland in 2019, said, “Even though we had ventilators, the gas seeps in and you’d work all day with a runny nose and itchy eyes, sneezy. Otherwise it wasn’t too bad.” She was paid $11.50 an hour.

She added that the assemblers worked between 10 to 12 hours a day for about four months to complete an order. The company was on alert for anyone who would develop rashes from chemicals trapped under their protective masks, she said.

ManpowerGroup and Remedy Staffing did not respond to NBC News’ requests for comment.

A noisy neighbor

Combined Systems is one of the few employers in Jamestown, a borough of Pennsylvania's Mercer County, with a population of about 600 people. Residents have three main options for work: the local school district, Jamestown Coating Technologies or Combined Systems, according to Jamestown Mayor Esther McClimans.

In 2016, Combined Systems received a $2 million grant from the Pennsylvania Redevelopment Assistance Capital program to keep its operations in the state and expand.

“We’re always looking for people to hire people,” McClimans said. “I just know that they’re a business like anybody.”

“I just know that they’re a business like anybody,” the Jamestown mayor said.

But some local residents have complained about fumes and loud booms from ballistics tests, leading several to accuse the company of trespassing and private nuisance, in a lawsuit filed against the company in December 2014. Combined Systems did not respond to NBC News’ request but it denied the allegations in court filings. The case is ongoing.

Eddy Howard, a retired pastor and plaintiff in the lawsuit, said that he and his wife have become accustomed to running home when they see a plume of haze accumulating at the plant, while out on their 85-acre stretch of land.

“I don’t know what’s in those chemicals,” he said. “I’m not saying they’re going to kill you. But I’m not going to breathe them in or experience them to find out.”

The plant has been the site of several explosions and fires, according to the local newspaper, The Sharon Herald. Emergency personnel have been called to the plant seven times between June 2018 and June 2020 for fire emergencies, according to an NBC News review of emergency call logs to the Mercer County Department of Public Safety. Medical personnel were called 14 times during the same period for reports of hemorrhaging, traumatic injury, breathing and allergic reactions, according to call logs.

In February, an explosion at the plant injured five workers, according to dispatch records and The Meadeville Tribune. A week later, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration opened an inspection into the plant, according to the agency’s records. The inspection is ongoing.

Medical personnel were called 14 times between June 2018 and June 2020 for reports of hemorrhaging, traumatic injury, breathing and allergic reactions, according to call logs.

“I’m just a little sawdust here trying to fight these guys,” Howard, who is still in litigation with the company, said. “They have millions of dollars. I don't think it’s right or fair that they can do that with no ramifications, no nothing.”

Legacy

In July last year, Kanders, Safariland's CEO, stepped down from the board of the Whitney Museum in New York after weeks of protests that culminated in eight artists refusing to show their work at the prestigious Whitney biennial exhibition. The demonstrations centered around Safariland's role in selling tear gas used by border patrol agents on migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border.

The police response and the use of tear gas against Black Lives Matter protesters has led a number of cities to consider banning tear gas altogether. The Seattle City Council unanimously voted in June to prohibit police from using tear gas and chokeholds on protesters, and Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signed legislation in June that would restrict the use of tear gas.

When Safariland announced that same month that it would be divesting the division that makes tear gas and other nonlethal weapons, Kanders said, “As we look to the future, Safariland will continue to support public safety professionals in all lines of service as they risk their lives daily to keep the public safe."

Leticia Miranda