Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Bloody Pocket Syndrome in the Steel Industry

In past posts I've noted that a contributing factor to the high number of deaths in the steel industry are new contracts between the steelworkers union and the steel companies that have given companies more flexibility to move workers around to different jobs where they may have less experience. Downsizing in many companies has also meant that workers are doing a variety of new jobs that they may not have been trained for.

Take, for example, the story of Dave Triplo, a pipefitter at U.S. Steel Corp.-Granite City Works plant. After U.S. Steel Corp. bought out National Steel Inc. and downsized, life changed at the plant:
The downsizing meant steelworkers would each have to assume additional duties to fill the void. Which is why Triplo was not only working as a pipefitter, but he also joined the millwrights in performing mechanical work overnight.

"It's all hands-on when you work with another guy," he said. "That's when you learn."

The casting machine Triplo was told to clean back in December 2003 was a metal-sorting machine that forms steel into 9-inch thick and 6-foot wide slab of varying lengths.

The only way to get inside to clean the 20-foot-tall machine's water sprayers is to enter atop the apparatus' 6-foot-long, 9-inch-wide opening. Triplo was given the task after he and fellow steelworkers were given a "fit test." Because he could fit his 5-foot-7, 160-pound body through the entry, Triplo was assigned to clean the machine.

"He told me that if I fit in that mold, I (would have to go in)," he said. "No 'ifs,' 'ands' or 'buts.'"

Triplo decided to go inside, but almost inside he said he could not stabilize himself. The machine has a series of about a dozen steel rolls. He was supposed to use them as a ladder to get down inside and climb back out.

But he said his large leather steel-toed boots kept him from standing on the rolls and he felt that he would fallen the rest of the way -- about 16 feet -- if he went in all the way.

Triplo climbed out and refused to go back in.

He was fired on the spot.
Another theme of past articles, illustrated by Triplo's experience, is that workers are being disciplined and fired for complaining about unsafe conditions or reporting accidents:
In Granite City, United Steelworkers of America Local 1899 financial secretary Gary Gaines said it is understood that those reporting accidents on the job will be blamed for being careless, "not paying attention" or "not following procedures."

As a result, workers face suspension, or as in Triplo's case, termination.

"It's a near guarantee you'll receive disciplinary action if you're hurt at work," said Gaines, who has worked in some capacity with at the Granite City steel mill for the past 33 years. "The worker's story is basically ignored. It's you were doing it, so it's your fault."

A safety chairman from Local 1899 said supervisors are looking for a reason to discipline workers for most injuries reported.

"The pattern is clear that that is what is occurring," said Dennis Barker.
The situation has gotten so bad, that steelworkers have coined a name for it "Bloody Pocket Syndrome" which Steelworkers Health and Safety Director Mike Wright describes as
steelworkers who may have as little as a cut on their hand while on the job and in fear of retribution will hide it and wait until after their shift to go to the hospital.

"U.S. Steel has pretty much determined their problem is their workers, and that accidents are caused by people performing unsafe acts," Wright said.

He also said the problem is not limited to U.S. Steel, or the steel industry. He said today's industrial workers are under more strain and pressure than before.

"I think that's due to the economic conditions," he said. "People are working very large amounts of overtime, crew sizes are (smaller) and people are being put into jobs that are insufficiently staffed."
Triplo eventually got his job back along with $38,000 in back pay. But the main problems are still there:
Wright said the steel industry and others need to do a better job of designing safety procedures and make sure workers are properly trained.

"When people believe they are going to be disciplined as a result of reporting an accident, they are not going to report the accident," he said. "That's just human nature."

"They believe the company will add insult to injury."

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