Velma Burnette, 47, of Lorain, Ohio, a steelworker at Republic Engineered Products Inc., was killed Wednesday
after being trapped by a load of steel. Ironically, that same day, an article appeared in the Wall St. Journal
(subscription required) discussing the recent rise in fatalities and accidents in the steel industry after a decade of declining injuries and deaths.
The United Steelworkers of America says at least 15 deaths, compared with four deaths in 2003, were reported for 2004 in union and nonunion steel-related operations. Another safety gauge -- injuries per man hour worked -- also increased last year after a four-year decline, according to figures supplied by the American Iron and Steel Institute, which represents North American steelmakers, including U.S. Steel.
Observers cite a number of factors. The steel companies and the United Steelworkers have signed new contracts recently giving the companies more flexibility to move workers around to different jobs where they may have less experience. Meanwhile, many experienced workers took advantage of early retirement offers at the same time the demand for steel has been increasing.
"With the turnover in the steel industry, there are a lot of people doing jobs they have never done before," says Mike Wright, director of safety and health for the steelworkers union.
Those less-experienced workers arrived just as steel demand picked up, prompting steelmakers to ramp up production quickly. U.S. steel production rose 7% in 2004 to 104 million tons, according to the American Iron and Steel Institute.
Economists say higher production means more hours worked and more chances for accidents and fatalities.
Some company responses have been appropriate.
Bayou Steel Corp. in LaPlace, La., added a laser-activated, automatic rail car shut-off after worker Ed Theriot, 50 years old, was crushed to death by a moving rail car in April. After a fatality in June, International Steel Group gathered 40 safety representatives from unions and salaried staff and came up with new procedures, safety videos and a quarterly newsletter.
On the other hand, some companies continue to fall back on the same old "blame the worker" philosopy for the rise in incidents.
Herbert Tolman III was killed Sept. 21 at U.S. Steel's Gary works plant, when his crew was replacing a 28-inch, 800-pound steel wheel on an overhead crane. The jack slipped, and the crane dropped, sending the wheel into Mr. Tolman, 39, according to a U.S. Steel report on the accident.
The company says the crew failed to follow correct procedures, including standing clear of the jack and using blocks under the crane to stabilize it. Two of the six-member crew were fired, one received a five-day suspension and another resigned rather than face disciplinary action.
The union is filing grievances on behalf of some of those employees. People within the union say Mr. Tolman was relatively inexperienced as a crew chief and had been told to work faster. Mr. Tolman also was working 20 to 30 hours of overtime each week as a motor inspector, according to his wife.
U.S. Steel spokesman John Armstrong says in most accidents, workers are experienced and are aware of safety procedures but don't follow them.
Meanwhile, according to an investigation by Occupational Hazards
magazine, "the number of steel facilities reporting [to OSHA] a lost workday injury and illness rate of zero jumped from just two in 1999 to 23 in 2001."
Increasing automation and safety improvements may account for the rise in facilities with a zero LWDII rate, but according to Mike Wright, director of health, safety and environment for the United Steelworkers of America, inaccurate recordkeeping also could be a factor. In an interview, Wright said that the underreporting of injuries and illnesses is a problem he "runs into every day and it afflicts even our best programs."