Workers at the New Balance factory in Skowhegan reported “unusual symptoms” from exposure to an unknown chemical solvent Thursday afternoon, prompting the company to evacuate the plant and halt operations.

Fire officials said Thursday evening that the factory was safe to reopen, and New Balance’s Maine manufacturing lead said the company expects to reopen the plant after the weekend.

About 30 people reported symptoms earlier Thursday that included difficulty breathing, eye irritation, burning and tingling. Skowhegan Fire Chief Shawn Howard said that they were part of a group of 70 employees who used a tent set up for decontamination, where they showered, changed clothes and stayed in school buses as Hazmat teams investigated.

Five people evaluated at Redington-Fairview General Hospital in Skowhegan due to their exposure to the solvent were released on Thursday night, Howard said during an early evening press conference.

Howard said that the exposure did not appear to be due to New Balance negligence.

Clockwise from left: Skowhegan police walk past the scene of chemical exposure at the New Balance factory in Skowhegan on Oct. 22; The New Balance factory; Skowhegan fire Capt. Ty Strout speaks to reporters outside the factory; Crews in hazmat suits are seen outside the factory. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

“At this point, we were able to take several individuals from New Balance back and walk down through the processes and let them look at the lines to make sure nothing was out of place, which it was not,” Howard said.

Raye Wentworth, New Balance’s Maine regional manufacturing lead, said late Thursday night that the factory would remain closed through the weekend as an investigation into the chemical exposure continues. 

Wentworth confirmed that a number of employees reported “unusual symptoms,” but said all employees are safe. The company is “grateful for the support and cooperation we have received during this challenging situation,” Wentworth said.

Some 200 to 300 people were evacuated from the plant, said Capt. Ty Strout of the Skowhegan Fire Department, and fire departments from throughout the region were called to the scene. The first people to report experiencing the symptoms were on the fourth floor of the building, he said.

Most employees began leaving the factory at about 4:45 p.m., a few with wet hair and wearing surgical gowns after they went through decontamination.

Emergency responders received the first call about the workers’ symptoms at about 1:15 p.m., according to the Skowhegan Police Department.

Roads leading to the factory were blocked.

The plant in Skowhegan is one of three where New Balance manufactures shoes in Maine. The others are in Norridgewock and Norway.