Diary of death in a steel mill

Len Shindel

November 01, 1991|By Len Shindel

OCT. 1:

Men leaving work tell me that a co-worker has been crushed to death by a tractor this morning. Outside the locker room a group is discussing the tragedy in grisly detail. "Yeah," says one, "they told one of the laborers to spray the blood off the steel coil so they could ship it to the customer . . . They say the tractor operator looked at him lying there and screamed and just took off running."

I walk slowly into the locker room thinking back to the rainy right when I was a passenger in a car that hit a woman crossing the street. I still see her face against the windshield, and I remember running two blocks to the emergency room -- running to escape that face.

David Hamlett's death on this day is trauma and irony. Just two weeks ago I sent a complaint to MOSHA (the Maryland Occupational Safety and Health Administration) detailing our repeated problems with faulty, dangerous tractors and Bethlehem's lack of attention to those problems.

I report to my job, and I am immediately approached by my foreman. He says: "I'm sure by now you've heard about the accident. Be sure to check your tractor to make sure everything is in working order." He's one of the supervisors who ignored the complaints that are before MOSHA.

Oct. 2:

People are talking death in every corner of the mill. Some workers say that a faulty tractor was to blame. The company is spreading the word that the accident was caused by the operator's error. Everywhere one hears the refrain: "Why does someone have to be killed before they get serious about safety?"

The tractors in the finishing mills are battery-driven, mammoth blocks of steel on wheels. They have two booms extending forward which enter the eyes of steel coils that will one day be transformed to tin cans, hot water heaters and roofs. Most of the tractors are 30 years old with a lifting capacity of 50,000 pounds or less.

The marketplace, however, is demanding larger and larger coils. The tractors are being overloaded, making steering more difficult -- one of the complaints MOSHA is investigating.

Next door to the galvanizing lines where I work, Bethlehem is constructing a world-class coating line at a cost of $150 million. I marvel at the speed and efficiency of construction.

But here things are falling apart. Concrete floors are crumbling from the constant pounding of tractors. Laborers who repair the floors are on frequent layoff -- "cost cuts," they say. One of the tractors we operate has faulty booms. When we hit a rough section of floor, the coils may slide off the forks. That's another complaint before MOSHA.

Another of the tractors, the fastest in the mill, suddenly loses power, forcing its operator to engage foot brakes rather than the usual method of "plugging" in reverse. In the ensuing seconds, anyone in the vehicle's path may become the next David Hamlett. MOSHA is investigating.

The tractor maintenance department has issued a memorandum advising that it is unwise and, by implication, unsafe to conduct tractors with insufficiently charged batteries. But the company has reduced the crews responsible for charging the batteries. It says it must "cut man-hours per ton."

Oct. 23:

A note on the cafeteria wall says that a collection is being taken up for the tractor operator whose vehicle crushed David Hamlett. She is hospitalized for psychological stress.

Leaving work, I encounter a co-worker standing next to a red can. He asks for a donation for David Hamlett's family. I reach into my pocket. The collection is an attempt to relieve the powerlessness we feel when one of our own is killed.

Walking to my car, I think how much more fitting it would be if, in David Hamlett's memory, we rediscover the fortitude needed to enforce the safety clause of our contract. Article 14-3 allows us to refuse to work unsafely until the matter is investigated and corrected or reviewed by an arbitrator. Maybe when we shut down some production lines, we can get some real safety.

Oct. 24:

Word has it that Bethlehem Steel may be cited by MOSHA for a "willful violation" in the death of David Hamlett. The maximum fine for such a violation is $7,000. Bethlehem will, no doubt, appeal. If it loses the appeal, it can pay the fine with profits from the coil that was coated with the blood of David Hamlett.

Len Shindel writes from Baltimore.

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