Sunday, February 06, 2005

Steelworkers Continue to Die

David M. Prengel 46-year-old U.S. Steel employee was killed last Thursday "at the company's Granite City, Illinois plant when a slow-moving cargo train crushed him against the wall of a loading dock."
Prengel was aboard a cargo train headed for a loading area when he disembarked to activate signals alerting other workers of the train's approach, police said. The train struck him as he crossed the track and dragged him about 70 feet against a concrete wall, a witness told union investigators. A gap of only inches separated the train from the wall, authorities said.
Prengel was at least the third fourth steelworker to be killed on the job in as many weeks. Longtime Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Corp. employee Kenneth Cesaro was killed January 17 at the company's North Plant, Ohio facility after being hit by a train in the rail yard.

And I wrote last week about the death of Velma Burnette, 47, of Lorain, Ohio, a steelworker at Republic Engineered Products Inc., who was killed January 26 after being trapped by a load of steel.

[UPDATE: Allegheny Ludlum Steel employee John Novick, 50, was killed early Saturday morning was pinned between two rail cars]

Following Burnette's death, I wrote about some of the possible causes of the recent rash of steel deaths:

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.
Although Prengel was an experienced switchman, other accidents at the facility seem to fit this pattern frighteningly well:

The accident was the second in eight days at the plant and came amid workers' concerns over safety issues. Employees represented by United Steelworkers of America locals 1899 and 68 have been picketing company offices in Granite City on and off since November, citing concerns over workplace training, safety and seniority.

On Jan. 26, an employee was badly injured when a 20-ton truck that moves steel coils backed over the motor scooter he was driving. The man suffered skull fractures and five fractures of the pelvis, among other injuries, according to Local 1899 President Russ Saltsgaver. The worker was driving the scooter in a restricted area at the request of a supervisor, while the operator of the coil truck was inexperienced with the vehicle and is actually a crane operator, Saltsgaver said.

"There's a lot of cross-training and people being asked to do several different jobs," he said.

John Armstrong, a spokesman for U.S. Steel, said on Friday that both drivers in the accident Jan. 26 had been trained to operate their respective machines.

Saltsgaver said union employees are concerned about workplace safety issues arising out of a new contract negotiated when U.S. Steel purchased the plant from National Steel in 2003. That contract, he said, requires workers to perform duties with inadequate training.

"We need the company to start making sure that people are afforded safe work procedures and that they're properly trained and not asked to do stuff they're not familiar with," he said. Under the new contract, some employees are "now expected to do six or seven jobs instead of one," he added.
A union health and safety rep at the facility tells me that :

It is accurate that there is great concern with safety in Basic Steel today with the new contracts that went into place in 2003. The new work rules have combined 24 job classifications down to 5 which gives the companies a great amount of flexibility in job assignments. For example crane operators are now in a job classification or "Box" with 14 other jobs or functions where before they were in a line of promotion by themselves.

Although this fatality was not connected to the new work rules the other accident with the scooter and 20 ton coil truck was a direct result of the new rules and flexibility. ...This is why for the last 10 weeks we have been holding informational picketing in front of US Steel's Granite City Plant's offices with our expressing our concern about safety and job training. This is the 6th death in Basic Steel since the new contracts have been signed I fear these will not be the last.

The industry needs to recognize what the Union already knows that there is serious problems with combining so many jobs in this kind of hazardous industry. Going forward slowly is better than proceeding with reckless speed. The results so far has been disastrous.

Industry has long complained that unions are too inflexible about work assignments. But showing flexibility, as the Steelworkers have done seems to be a life-threatening proposition for many employees.

So what needs to be done to address this structural change in the industry? The union safety rep at the facility tells me that the union is demanding much more in-depth training. Instead, the companies are going forward with breakneck speed to reduce the man hours per net tons of steel produced -- with fatal results.

The Steelworkers' webpage states that:

The union's ultimate objective must be to give workers increased control over their own working conditions and the hazards they face every day. The right-to-know about workplace hazards is meaningless without the power-to-act in defense of health and safety and to refuse unsafe work without fear of repercussions from management.
The industry and OSHA, on the other hand, don't seem to want the union involved, if an industry alliance between OSHA and the American Iron and Steel Institute, the Steel Manufacturers Association and the Specialty Steel Industry of North America formed last summer is any evidence. As USWA president Leo Gerard said:

"OSHA and the industry both need help," Gerard said, "but they're not going to find it from each other. The trade associations have opposed every OSHA standard that applies to the steel industry. So far as we know, they have no full-time professional safety staff. And OSHA's only recent activity in the industry was to propose a weakening of the Coke Oven Standard."

"Meanwhile, many steel companies have made deep cuts in their own safety and health staff," Gerard said. "At this point, most large steel plants have more full-time union safety representatives than management safety personnel. And the union has a bigger headquarters safety and health staff than most or all steel companies."