Union officers at Bethlehem Steel Corp.'s Sparrows Point plant say safety conditions have suffered from manpower reductions by the company in recent years, but may not have contributed to the accidental death of a steelworker this week.
Cutbacks among the crews that clean the plant and maintain equipment are making the work environment more dangerous, they say, while high rates of overtime are contributing to worker fatigue that can lead to accidents.
"From 1986 on, they've just continued to take a turn for the lean and mean," said Leroy R. McClellan, grievance committee secretary for Local 2609 of the United Steelworkers of America. "The results are what we're faced with now. There are an enormous amount of accidents occurring, and some fatalities."
But he said that the fatal injury Tuesday to 53-year-old Edward Sykes appeared to have been caused by a "freak" accident.
Frank Rossi, a company-paid safety representative who represents the union locals' interests, said that in the past two years the company has taken a more cooperative attitude toward the workers' safety concerns. And the number of injuries per man-hour worked at the plant has fallen to record lows.
"I feel that after a long history of bad relations, we are finally trying to work together," Mr. Rossi said.
The recurring issue of safety at Sparrows Point surfaced again this week with Mr. Sykes' death.
The accident is being investigated by the Maryland Occupational Safety and Health (MOSH) office. Initial reports indicate Mr. Sykes was struck by a 150- to 200-pound fragment of steel that broke away from a machine that was being examined by electricians looking for the source of a malfunction.
It was the fourth fatality at Sparrows Point in 12 months.
Last month, a 38-year-old carpenter was fatally burned when he fell into a vat of hot acid. Last October, a 63-year-old worker was crushed between a tractor and a roll of steel. And last August, a 33-year-old man died when he was pulled into a high-speed lathe.
Four workers at the steel plant were killed in 1990, and fines totaling $11,290 were assessed by MOSH for safety violations that contributed to the deaths.
"I think [Tuesday's] accident was . . . just unavoidable," said Local 2609 President Donald E. Kellner. But he alleged that the company has compromised safety by:
* Reducing the size and deployment of repair crews at the plant. Instead of keeping crews on standby at each mill, he said, they are dispatched as needed anywhere at the plant. As a result, crews get tired, and may not be familiar with the machinery they're fixing. Repairs are also made on a priority basis and some may be delayed.
* Maintenance and cleanup operations have been reduced, creating conditions conducive to accidents.
* An abundance of overtime has led to shifts of up to 16 hours long, and work weeks as long as 56 hours in some mills, exhausting workers. "It's created a greed that's unreal," Mr. McClellan said. "A 40-hour pace is what we should be looking at, and giving other brothers and sisters an opportunity to work."
Bethlehem Steel spokesman Ted Baldwin declined to comment specifically about these allegations. But he said, "If there's an unsafe condition, an employee can stop work until it's fixed."
Some departments may be scheduling overtime and 16-hour shifts, but it's "up to the departments to make sure there are no safety hazards, including that."
Mr. Rossi is one of two full-time safety coordinators at Sparrow's Point. It's their job to help the 10 members of the union safety committees identify safety problems, alert the company and track its response.
Asked what response the company has made to union allegations about inadequate repair and maintenance crews, he said, "None, really."
"I might feel that's not a good policy, but it doesn't look like it has impacted the injury rate," he said. The number of injuries at Sparrow's Point per man hour worked has declined by 24 percent since 1987, he said.
"We attribute that . . . to changing attitudes, on the part of management," he said. "If you're asking management, they may say union attitudes have changed. Maybe it's both."
However, the rate of fatal accidents has remained unchanged.
"I can't do any finger-pointing," he said. "It's no mystery that it's an unsafe place to work. But it is a mystery why we haven't been able to reduce [fatalities] when we have reduced everything else."
Mr. Baldwin said, "We certainly are working very hard to prevent fatalities, or any injuries, and we're saddened when they occur. One fatality is too many."
Mr. Rossi said Bethlehem Steel is now working with the unions to provide more safety awareness and training, and to create labor-management teams to develop and implement safety policies.