Dying on the Job: How Workers Get Hurt When Businesses Keep Deadly Secrets

Lambert here: Gerard’s approach sounds a lot like “safety culture” in the airline industry (though the cases may not be comparable, because all except those who can afford to use private jets use commercial aircraft, not the case for the workplace).

By Leo W. Gerard, international president of the United Steelworkers Union (USW). This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

Last year, on Halloween just before midnight, Frank Leasure left work at American Standard in Salem, Ohio. To get to his car in the employee lot, he had to walk across two sets of Norfolk Southern railroad tracks. He waited in frigid, driving rain for a westbound train to pass, then began to cross, only to be struck by an eastbound train that he apparently did not see or hear.

Frank Leasure, 62, of Carrollton, Ohio, Army veteran, husband, father and grandfather, was one of 19 members of the union I lead, the United Steelworkers (USW), who died on the job between last Workers’ Memorial Day and this one. Workers’ Memorial Day is observed annually on April 28 to commemorate those who lost their lives at work. In 2017, the most recent year for which national statistics are available, 5,147 workers died on the job, an average of 14 every day.

The USW is devoted to reducing those numbers. One way it does that is disseminating information about how specific workplace injuries, illnesses and fatalities occur and how to prevent them. Another is establishing labor-management health and safety committees to continuously analyze workplace risks and reduce them. In the case of Frank Leasure, both occurred.

Unfortunately, at the same time, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reduced its workplace safety inspectors to the lowest level in its 48-year history, diminishing its capacity to investigate workplace deaths, illnesses and injuries. And it reversed a rule that would have provided more information about workplace dangers nationally. It decided to stop requiring large employers to electronically report injury and illness data. OSHA still requires employers to document this information, but they don’t have to tell anyone.

The Frank Leasure case illustrates how this decision endangers workers. The USW Health and Safety Department conducts what it calls learning events, also known as accident investigations, at USW job sites, shares information about the problems it finds and publishes online hazard alerts that recommend methods to prevent recurrence.

These hazard alerts don’t blame and shame. They don’t name the company where the incident occurred or the victim. They describe what happened and then recommend ways to prevent similar injuries and deaths. They’re intended to help local unions and employers identify and eliminate similar hazards in their workplaces.

Here’s what the alert said about the incident in Ohio: “It appears the worker waited for the westbound train to clear before walking across the first set of tracks and never saw the two-engine train traveling eastbound at the same time the westbound train was clearing the crossing. The crossing was equipped with active warning devices, but the heavy rain and noise from the passing train appear to have created additional hazards and a blind spot. In addition, swing-down barrier gates were only provided in the lanes for oncoming vehicles, even though pedestrians can and do cross the tracks on both sides of the street.”

That may sound like a happenstance so unusual that it would never occur again. It may sound like something that just couldn’t be averted. But that’s not the case. The USW hazard alert recommends nine ways to avoid such an incident. One, for example, would be to locate the employee parking lot in a place where 200 workers on three shifts would not have to cross railroad tracks twice a day as they enter and leave the factory.

Another solution would be to provide a tunnel or elevated walkway connecting the workplace and the parking lot so that workers could avoid contact with the tracks and trains. Lighted warning signs could be installed to alert pedestrians to a train traveling on the second set of tracks at the same time that a train on the first set of tracks blocks its view.

After the alert was posted on the USW site, the USW Health and Safety Department emailed copies of it to labor-management health and safety committees at numerous other USW-represented workplaces where railroad tracks crisscross the sites to accommodate material deliveries. Several of these committees contacted the department to obtain more information as they began work to make their railroad crossings safer. In addition, several corporate safety experts who saw the posted hazard alert contacted the department to seek information, offer suggestions and describe how they planned to remediate or had already corrected similar railroad crossing situations.

One caller said his company intended to install lights to warn pedestrians of a second train. That could prevent repeat of the tragedy that killed Frank Leasure. That’s why it’s so important to broadcast incident and safety information.

And that’s why it’s a travesty that OSHA has decided to allow corporations to secret away their injury and illness information. If OSHA collected and published the information, untold numbers of illnesses, injuries and deaths could be prevented. Corporations, labor unions and workers could study the problems and offer solutions. But they can’t solve health and safety issues they don’t know about because they are locked in corporate vaults.

Another of the recommendations made in the USW hazard alert regarding rail crossings was that labor-management health and safety committees address hazards outside as well as inside workplaces.

To its credit, American Standard responded to the spirit of this advice, reaching out to the local union to start a dialogue on safety. Last week, it accommodated two safety committee meetings, one in which USW Health and Safety Department representatives and local union officials discussed ways to improve worker welfare, and a second in which workers met with company officials to talk about how to sustain an effective labor-management committee to continuously improve health and safety plant-wide and identify and eliminate workplace hazards. Also, the USW Health and Safety Department linked the labor-management health and safety committee to one at an Ohio factory that confronted similar problems.

This is about prevention, not condemnation. It works best when workplaces and employees collaborate.

Company and union officials also are meeting with city and state representatives to discuss safety because it’s not just workers who cross the tracks. The factory is located in a neighborhood, and pedestrians, including children, frequently walk across the tracks, often to get to a market on the other side. At a meeting earlier this month, union and company officials discussed a range of potential safety measures with Salem, the Public Utility Commission of Ohio, the Ohio Department of Transportation, and the Ohio Mid-Eastern Governments Association.

This work ensures that Frank Leasure did not die in vain. This work, the USW believes, honors his memory.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Enquiring Mind

    I wonder what the German experience of labor-management collaboration on safety and other issues could show American people on both sides of the table. At what point will American employees become tired of the adversarial nature of their neo-liberal environment and look management in the eye to ask if they would treat their own family members with such disdain?

    A little publication effort by a non-servile press, like an old 60 Minutes segment, would go a long ways in calling out Dickensian companies. In the absence of press coverage, note that crowd-sourcing of information works in all directions.

  2. Svante Arrhenius

    I’d mentioned seeing a foreign-owned Texas mill having three fatalities in a single week. Only to return to a union mill in central PA, where both the Indian owned (rolling) and US owned (pipe/ coating) mills experienced fatal accidents within a week. I’d just described the nature of folks daily routine at a 42″ pipe double-joining rack, switched to neophyte welders, that folks are on motorized booms welding >750A (DC and AC!), ducking beneath the 80′ 13 ton monsters, ever increased throughput, all of which used to be performed by highly experienced specialists. It’s basically hands-off by PHMSA, or the customers for well over a decade. We figure it’s likely the same in other fields? Oldtimers, with empirical experience are ignored by their clients, employers; nobody’s about to blow a whistle and of course there’s nowhere to speak the truth since the lefty blogs were silenced in 2016. Since the top 10% speciously stereotype blue collar workers, nobody really seems to mind OSHA continuing to be a joke, 1099 employees going without Worker’s Comp, overtime, unemployment, sick-days or usable health plans. Russian and Indian mills standards are now pretty uniform, throughout the industry, south or north.

  3. KB

    Thanks Lambert for posting an article about work injuries and deaths. One of the most grossly under-reported topics in the country I think. Other than a series by Propublica and some obscure blogs like “confined spaces” this is a secret. And as you often say: All going according to plan.

    My hubby was crushed by 2,500 pounds and burned and thankfully survived. The draconian world of work comp and Osha were fully revealed to us. The health care, the compensation, and lack of accountability. Each state is different much to my surprise and “no fault” was implemented in Minnesota in 1992 and 1995.

    After some time diving into understanding this system I eventually realized I knew more than most of my state’s Reps and Senators….they all stated it was too complicated. It is by design.
    Also glad to see a union rep here as we found the Public Employee unions to be not helpful if not downright interfering.

    More like this, please.

  4. diptherio

    Require the C-suite execs to spend one week a year shadowing line workers, to ensure that the yucky-yucks are exposed to the same safety hazards as everyone else, and see how quickly job sites become safer.

  5. Rod

    Larger employers (50+)are positioned for compliance better than smaller ones and the vast majority of US employers(50-). If the business has no employees only owners working it has OSHA exemptions–1099 subcontractors compliance becomes complicated.
    Compliance has been complicated (by design, imo) since OSHA was created in 1970 and further debilitated by allowing individual states to create State OSHA agencies under grants (having requirements equal to or exceeding Fed Regulations) and the enforcement of such.
    It’s a mess.
    I hold an 1911 OSHA Construction Safety Trainer certification and w my experience agree with diptherio that all management needs ‘ line experience frequently’ to assess scheduling expectations.
    As is said ” Safety is cultural” and the work culture needs to be safety first.
    20% of workers killed in the job in 2017 were Construction workers.
    There are solutions.

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