Steelworkers question why fatal accidents on rise

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When a 20,000-pound roll used to flatten stainless steel crushed the life out of Michael Carney last week at Allegheny Ludlum's Vandergrift plant, the 50-year-old Freeport man became the sixth member of the United Steelworkers of America to die this year while working in a North American steel mill.

Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette
Andy Miklos, president of USWA Local 1557, addresses a crowd of workers in front of the USX Clairton Works on Wednesday. Union leaders at Clairton are upset about safety issues at the plant.
Click photo for larger image.
Killed on job
Six members of the United Steelworkers of American have died so far in accidents at North American steel mills, vs. three in all of 2003. The dead are:
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.

Source: United Steelworkers of America

The rebounding industry, enjoying its most prosperous times in recent memory, can't explain why twice as many union members have died this year than in all of last year. There are no other hard statistics, just hunches that radical changes in the industry may have made mills more dangerous places to work.

The changes include dramatically reduced work forces, the retirement of some of the industry's most experienced workers and a landmark labor agreement that rescued much of the industry from bankruptcy. 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.

"This company does not want to see an employee injured, but they need to take a realistic look at things and make sure that doesn't happen," he said. "It's tough working in there. These accidents are proof of that."

U.S. Steel President John P. Surma emphasized the importance of working safe by ordering a one-hour halt at the company's facilities following the accident that injured Brownfield. While the company has a better safety record than the industry, he said, "we still have more progress to make."

"We have a lot of people in new jobs," Surma said. "Considering the instability we've had, I think we've done a reasonable job."

The instability stems from the industry's financial problems, which drove steelmakers accounting for more than a third of the nation's steelmaking capacity into bankruptcy in recent years. To survive, they negotiated a new contract with the USW that rewrote the book on how dozens of jobs are performed. Simultaneously, steel producers reduced their work forces, largely by giving older workers incentives to retire.

During the bargaining, saving as many jobs as possible and providing as much protection to displaced workers were rightfully the main priorities, while not as much consideration was given to safety issues, said Mike Wright, the USW's point man on safety and health issues.

"We've had jobs put together without adequate safety analysis," Wright said. "The things we worry about with the new contract are getting training up to speed, getting job analysis up to speed."

It's tempting to conclude production and safety move in opposite directions, but statistics for one widely used safety measure don't confirm that. The indicator, known as the lost work day rate, measures the number of days workers miss because of accidents for every 200,000 hours worked. In 1992 and 1999, U.S. mills operated at about 83 percent of capacity. But their lost work day rate was 5.7 in 1992 and 4.4 in 1999, according to the U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration.

AK Steel spokesman Alan McCoy said the Middletown, Ohio, producer's key safety measures have consistently declined over the last decade no matter how much steel the company's mills produced.

"Our program is designed to take operating rates out of the picture as a factor," McCoy said.

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.

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.

Len Boselovic can be reached at or 412-263-1941.


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