Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Sudden Death In The Steel Industry

Almost a soon as they got home, Randa heard the van roar into the driveway. Then the strong, hurried footsteps, followed by loud knocking. There were six of them standing there when she opened the door.


"Mrs. Tolman?"


"We're from U.S. Steel."


"There's been an accident. You have to come with us."

It had been a massive 1,600-pound wheel from one of the overhead cranes which did it, they said. Herbie had been working on it and the wheel just fell, suddenly, and crushed him. They told her that Herbie had died around 11 AM, and that he was gone the moment it hit him.
This is a scenario repeated too many times recently among families of U.S. steelworkers.

Journalist Dan Frosch has written a moving and informative article about the rising number of deaths in the steel industry. I've written a number of times recently (see below)about the rising death toll in the steel industry and the reasons for it, which Frosch details. After years of downsizing and automating had cut the death rate in the steel industry, the recent changes in the industry have once again made jobs more hazardous:
In recent years, a worldwide steel boom began to change the industry's fate and American steel plants have fired up production once again. According to the American Iron and Steel Institute, U.S. steel plants shipped off nearly six percent more product in 2004 than in 2003, and approximately 12 percent more than in 2002.

But while business is good, steel companies have suddenly found themselves without the "old timers," as they're called, whose mastery of their own specialized crafts has been particularly missed now that there's more work to be done. Ostensibly, a far younger, less experienced generation of workers like Herbie Tolman, have been thrust into technically demanding and often dangerous jobs without many of the veterans there to show them the safest way to work.

Unsure of how long the boom will last, steel companies have been reluctant to rehire, despite the fact that during the downturn, crew sizes were scaled down and safety and preventative maintenance staff reduced, says Mike Wright, director of health, safety and environment for USWA.

To meet the increased demand in production, many companies did the next best thing: they signed labor agreements with the USWA which allowed workers to be shifted from the job they'd initially trained for, to different departments within the plant. Indeed, more work, less knowledge and a reduced emphasis on safety have all contributed to the problem, it seems.

"The workers have been under extraordinary pressure," Wright says.
And the companies are just making the situation worse:
But there's an underbelly to this safety-consciousness, says the union. U.S. Steel, says the USWA, has also been doing something very dangerous ­ disciplining employees for reporting injuries and accidents, and in the process forcing workers to think twice about coming forward when something in the plant has gone wrong.

"If there's an injury now, discipline often follows," says Wright. "And as a result, people just aren't reporting what's happening, so you lose basic information on how to make a plant safer."

Local union representatives at other U.S. Steel plants echo Wright's concern. Some workers at Granite City Works in Granite City, Illinois, say that since U.S. Steel took over the plant in 2003, their jobs have become considerably more dangerous, in part because, they say, the company discourages workers from reporting injuries or unsafe conditions.

"At this plant, if you're worried about the safety of the job you're doing, then you are considered insubordinate," says Gary Gaines, financial secretary for Granite City Works USWA Local 1899. "This company refuses to acknowledge that there are hazards in the steel industry."

Last December, one worker at the plant, Karl Richards, was killed from carbon monoxide poisoning while adjusting a valve on a blast furnace, and in February, another worker, David Prengel, was crushed against a loading dock by a cargo train.
Herbie Tolman's wife, meanwhile, is facing life with $588 a week in workers compensation money she gets from the state. What hurts her most, she says, is that no one from U.S. Steel has ever called to apologize.

"Not one person has called from Pittsburgh, not one person! Couldn't they have done that?" she wonders. "Herbie was so proud of that job. He loved it so much. I still can't believe he's never coming back."

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