Monday, August 30, 2004

Steelworker Deaths Climb: Manage Change or Manage Funerals

Finding the root causes of workplace death and injury is not an easy task. Last week steelworker Michael Carney was crushed to death when a 20,000 pound roll of steel crushed him.

What were the causes? An OSHA investigation will undoubtedly find a number of standards that had been violated, and probably fine the company a few thousand dollars. But it is unlikely that OSHA will uncover or address the real root causes of that accident, or the reason that twice as many member of the United Steelworkers of America have been killed this year than in all of last year. Carney was the sixth USWA member to die this year while working in a North American steel mill.

So what might be happening in the industry to cause these tragedies? According to an article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, there could be a number of causes:

Some reasons include dramatically reduced work forces and the retirement of some of the industry's most experienced workers.
Now that demand has increased sharply and the industry has a chance to make money, steelmakers have to produce more with fewer workers and many workers are performing jobs that are new to them....There's got to be a correlation there," said Andrew Miklos, president of USW Local 1557 at U.S. Steel's coke plant in Clairton.

Three serious accidents have occurred at the plant this year, including one last month in which USW member Russ Brownfield, 44, lost his legs. Union officials say the accident happened when Brownfield tried to jump on a moving rail car to set its brake. He slipped and fell beneath the car, which ran over him.

Miklos said issues related to the contract are compounded by forced overtime at Clairton, long an issue at the plant. Making workers work 16- hour shifts means longer weeks, which Miklos believes increases the chances of accidents happening.

According to USWA safety and health director Mike Wright, one problem may be that as a result of the most recent contract, jobs were restructured with being accompanied by a new safety analysis.

In the safety "business," this is sometimes called "management of change" analysis. That is, any time there is a change made to a process -- machinery, materials or work procedures -- a safety analysis has to be done.

The company denies that inreased production leads to more accidents, citing statistics showing the number of injuries going down, even while more workers are dying. But all may not be as it seems:
Wright is leery of statistics, saying "it's too easy to game them." Some workers are reluctant to report accidents or near accidents for fear of being disciplined, so those incidents go unreported. One company even sent a salaried worker to clinics with injured workers, trying to influence their treatment so the accident wouldn't have to be reported, Wright said.
While the root causes of these fatalities and injuries are not entirely clear yet, the bottom line, according to Wright, is that workers have a gut feeling that all is not well:
Union officials are examining this year's fatalities and serious injuries, but so far no pattern has emerged, Wright said. For now, there's just the gut feeling of many that safety has been compromised. Wright confirmed that last week when he asked USW members attending a health and safety conference in Pittsburgh whether their workplaces were safer than they were two years ago.

"When they stopped laughing, no one thought their plant is safer," Wright said.
  • Michael Carney, 50, killed Aug. 24 in a crane accident at Allegheny Ludlum's plant in Vandergrift.
  • Edward Hall, 52, killed June 28 by a rail car at International Steel Group's East Chicago, Ind., mill.
  • Tony Parker, 56, killed June 4 when he fell 18 feet at Ispat Inland's Indiana Harbor Works in East Chicago, Ind.
  • Robert Brzezinski, 43, killed April 26 when he fell into a pit at the steel-making shop of Algoma Steel in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario.
  • Ed Theriot, 50, killed April 13 when he was crushed by a rail car at Bayou Steel's mill in La Place, La.
  • Andy Jarosz, 55, killed Jan. 4 when he fell 16 feet and was crushed by a steel plate at Stelco's Hilton Works in Hamilton, Ontario.