Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Safety Pays? Maybe. But Workplace Fatalities in The Steel Industry Don't Pay Much

"I thought OSHA was some kind of powerful organization that had a lot of impact and influence to bring about serious ramifications. I expected the company would get more than a slap on the hand. ... I thought the job of OSHA was to put the fear of God into companies -- like they were the hand of God. But they're not."
That's probably what a lot of people in this country think. It's certainly what the National Association of Manufacturers, National Federation of Independent Businesses, Chamber of Commerce and others want people to think.

But Shirley Parker now knows better. Parker's husband Tony was killed June 4 at Ispat Inland Inc. steel mill when fell 20 to 25 feet into an area beneath his work station where he was struck by a hot metal transfer car. OSHA fined the company $8,625 for five serious violations in connection with Parker's death. But the agency had already "cited the company for at least 86 violations since 2000, with 55 of the serious violations occurring during a wall-to-wall inspection in 2002." And Parker's not the only widow who is upset:
Elizabeth Richards, whose husband Karl, died Dec. 21 of carbon monoxide poisoning at U.S. Steel Corp.'s Gary Works, agrees that any fine assessed by OSHA won't bring her husband back, but believes large fines would get the company's attention.

The agency's investigation into Richards' death is ongoing.

"If I had my way they'd be fined $10 million, $20 million," Elizabeth Richards said.

"Then they'd care. If OSHA fines them $10,000, it's like a slap in the face to my husband. Ten-thousand dollars to U.S. Steel is nothing. It's not even pin money. If OSHA fined the company enough, they'd pay attention; otherwise, it doesn't matter to them. Keeping the mill operating is more important than getting a small fine."

Two people were gassed at the same blast furnace six months before Karl Richards, and four workers two weeks later, she said.

"OSHA isn't doing its job and the mills don't care," Richards said.
In fact, 12 deaths over the past five years have cost the northern Indiana steel mills only $45,500 in Indiana Occupation Safety and Health Administration fines.

Two years ago, New York Times reporter David Barstow wrote a series of articles about OSHA's failure to go after criminal indictments for repeat and willful violations of safety standards. In one series Barstow focused on the McWane Corporation and in the other on a series of construction and other incidents, primarily at small companies. The problem of low OSHA fines is clearly a nationwide issue.

Indiana OSHA's Tim Crouse, director of Industrial Hygiene and Complianceseems to be learning the language of the new century well.
although the agency's fines are relatively small compared to the revenues of the steel companies, operating safely and reducing injuries and illnesses simply makes good business sense.

"All sources of increasing revenues are treated with respect, especially those from implementing an effective safety program," Crouse said in a written response to questions from The Times.

"Healthy productive workers are paramount to business success."

Nothing except "the commitment of the employer and employees to work safely" can assure workplace safety, he said.
Yeah, right. Personally, I think the the $280 million fine and major jail terms being contemplated for W.R. Grace officials will drive a bit more "good business sense" into those who are careless with workers lives.