Ford Ignored Safety Studies

An explosion and fire that killed six workers at Ford Motor Co. could have been avoided if safety recommendations from several engineering studies were followed.

An explosion and fire that killed six Ford Motor Co. workers last year could have been prevented if the company had followed safety recommendations in several engineering studies, The Detroit News reported Friday.

Studies in years prior to the explosion at the River Rouge Complex said safety equipment on boilers needed to be replaced, according to company records.

A boiler inside the plant in suburban Dearborn, jointly owned by Ford and Rouge Industries Inc., exploded Feb. 1, killing the employees and injuring 34 others.

An investigation revealed that the blast was caused by a buildup of natural gas in the boiler, which lacked adequate controls for shutting it down safely.

According to company records provided to state regulators and obtained by the News, Black & Veatch was hired by Ford in 1987 to study the power plant's boilers, installed in 1966.

Black & Veatch suggested replacing the boilers' controls, a job estimated at $10.2 million. Ford, according to a memo sent to the powerhouse's operating committee, did not want to upgrade the boilers because doing so would have required the company to comply with modern safety regulations, the newspaper said.

In 1990, a second company hired by Ford, Industrial Risk Insurers, suggested using combustion controls and venting with the boiler systems.

Ford engineers shut down two such safety devices six months after installing the boilers in 1966, saying they never worked well.

The recommendations were repeated in follow-up studies in 1996, 1997 and 1998. A third firm, Sargent & Lundy, in February 1998 also recommended replacing the boiler's controls.

James Padilla, Ford vice president for manufacturing, said following the advice in the engineering studies would not necessarily have prevented the accident.

"The idea that we were this big sleeping giant isn't true," he said. "`Our health and safety standards stand up reasonably well with industry standards."

He declined comment on why the recommendations were never followed.

"Clearly, the accident wouldn't have happened"' if they had followed those steps, said Chuck Lorish with OSHA in Michigan.

Ford officials said that since the accident at the Rouge complex, the company has spent millions of dollars on upgrading safety systems at its facilities nationwide.

The explosion shut down the complex's primary operations for more then three months.

Ford was fined $1.5 million following the accident. The company also paid about $30 million to settle lawsuits and agreed to give $5 million to researchers and hospital burn units.

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