Rescue workers gather outside the New Balance factory in Skowhegan last Thursday after some workers were exposed to a COVID-19 cleaning product that made them ill. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

SKOWHEGAN — Employees at the New Balance factory in Skowhegan returned to work Thursday after an investigation determined a COVID-19 cleaning product was responsible for a chemical exposure last week that sent five people to the hospital.

A New Balance spokesperson said Thursday the cleaning product came into contact with some of the factory’s equipment, causing a reaction.

The cleaning product was not identified by name, and a follow-up email seeking more information Thursday from New Balance officials received no reply.

Capt. Ty Strout of the Skowhegan Fire Department said New Balance had hired a private company to handle the investigation, so the Fire Department did not have information on the cleaning product.

“The product has been removed from all factories,” a company statement read. “We are confident in the extensive measures we have taken to confirm the safety of our operations and have updated our associates on our findings.”

On Thursday, Oct. 22, the Skowhegan Fire Department received report of two New Balance employees experiencing shortness of breath and eye irritation.

The factory was then evacuated and firefighters and ambulances from Skowhegan and other communities responded to the scene, as did the Central Maine Hazmat Team, which includes emergency workers from the Sappi paper mill in Skowhegan and the Augusta and Waterville Fire departments.

Skowhegan Fire Chief Shawn Howard said by the time crews arrived at the shoe factory, five employees had been affected by the cleaning chemical, and that number eventually grew to 20.

The fourth floor of the factory was first exposed to the chemical, and the substance then “trickled down” to lower floors, according to rescue workers.

Some employees were loaded onto a bus while officials investigated, but initial tests for air quality came back normal.

About 70 New Balance employees were decontaminated before leaving the scene, and all who were affected by the chemical recovered by the end of the night, according to sources.

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