GREENVILLE, Ala. — After only three weeks on the job, Michael Mitchell was maneuvering a 25,000-pound steel coil into position at the massive Hwashin America auto parts plant here when it got snagged on another SUV-sized steel roll. Mitchell, at the controls of an overhead crane, wiggled it free. Seconds later, it slammed into Mitchell and crushed him to death.
Three days later Brandon Ball, a welder, went into a coma after a robotic arm rammed his head and neck at the same factory, which supplies Hyundai in Montgomery, Ala., and Kia in West Point, Ga.
In all, federal authorities have investigated Hwashin nine times since 2006, when Mitchell died, and has cited it for 30 safety violations. Most were deemed “serious” with a “substantial probability that death or serious physical harm could result and that the employer knew, or should have known, of the hazard.”
Hwashin is one of dozens of auto parts makers — Korean, American, Japanese and German — that have repeatedly been scrutinized by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration over the last decade. Disturbed by the high number of worker injuries, agency officials recently launched a yearlong review of safety practices at all auto parts factories in Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution undertook its own investigation of safety problems bedeviling an industry that employs 50,000 workers in Georgia and Alabama. The Southern auto parts industry exploded in the 1990s after BMW opened a factory in Greer, S.C. Kia’s arrival in 2009 stamped Georgia on the auto industry map.
Both automakers have relatively good safety records at their own plants. Many of their suppliers, though, don’t.
The AJC’s investigation of more than 200 companies, based on OSHA records, shows that Korean parts makers, the latest foreign arrival, received the highest number of safety inspections and violations on a per capita basis.
American companies were the second-worst violators. German and Japanese parts makers log markedly fewer violations.
“Even after we issued citations we’ve gone back into establishments and found many of the same or like conditions,” said Ben Ross, the assistant regional administrator for enforcement in OSHA’s Atlanta office. “Apparently the message was not received. We must continue to make sure that this particular industry in the Southeast does not turn a blind eye” to safety.
Parts makers, while acknowledging the dangers of their work, insist safety is paramount. A Hwashin spokesman said, “The safety of our operation … is and always has been our number one priority.”
“I’ve never had a client that didn’t want a safe work site,” said Ed Foulke, a lawyer with Fisher & Phillips in Atlanta who headed OSHA under George W. Bush. “Auto parts factories are most definitely safer these days. And a lot of times employers are successful because they’re doing more than just following the rules.”
German, Japanese and Korean automakers prefer doing business with suppliers from their own country. Familiarity breeds success, they say. Mercedes (German) and Honda (Japanese) have drawn dozens of same-country suppliers to Alabama and added thousands of jobs.
Kia alone attracted two dozen Korean suppliers to west Georgia that employ 10,000 workers.
The South is known for low wages and few unions, which keep production costs in check, labor strife at bay and creates a business climate attractive to manufacturers. Georgia and Alabama are also so-called right to work states, which further reduces union clout.
Southern states have also doled out billions of dollars in tax breaks, incentives, free land and training. BMW received roughly $325 million in today’s dollars. Kia got roughly $450 million in state, local and federal incentives and tax breaks.
Gov. Nathan Deal and other officials tout the billions of dollars of investments and thousands of new jobs as worth the financial inducements. But critics say the cost to Georgia should not include endangering workers’ lives. Mr. Deal declined comment for this story.
Last fall, the AJC published an in-depth story about dangerous working conditions at Sewon America, a Korean-owned parts maker in LaGrange. The newspaper broadened its investigation to include the safety records of all auto parts suppliers in Georgia and Alabama the last decade.
OSHA records show that between May 2005, when Hyundai opened, and the end of 2013:
• Twenty percent of companies analyzed by the AJC are Korean, yet they were responsible for 38 percent of all final violations. Japanese entities own virtually the same number of factories as the Koreans, yet tallied only 15 percent of all violations. Americans, with half of the companies, registered 43 percent of the violations. The Germans, with less than 10 percent of the companies, notched only 4 percent of the violations.
• Korean companies were inspected once for every 153 workers. American companies were inspected once for every 212 workers; Germans, once for every 388 workers; and Japanese, once for every 504 workers.
• Korean companies received one final violation — an OSHA citation of wrongdoing usually accompanied by a fine — for every 41 workers. American companies got one final violation for every 53 workers; Japanese, one for every 111 workers; and Germans, one for every 143 workers.
“Some of our foreign entities need … to look at safety and health as a cost of doing business instead of just producing 100 cars a day,” said OSHA’s Mr. Ross. “What we want any employer to do, especially those where English may be a second language, is to have an understanding of our rules and regulations.”
OSHA again cited Tenneco Automotive, an American shock absorber maker in Hartwell, Ga., last year for a slew of safety and health violations. In all, the company has been fined $195,000 for exposing workers to dangerous chemicals and other hazards.
In 2010, a worker at Whitesell Corp. in Tuscumbia, Ala., which makes screws, bolts and fasteners, had his hand amputated by a machine. Appalled by working conditions at the plant, OSHA investigated a sister factory in Muscle Shoals. It found serious hazards there as well, accusing the company of willfully tampering with safeguards. In all, Whitesell was cited for 72 violations, the most for any company reviewed, and fined $3 million.