Ford Rouge Accident Affects UAW Contract

The fatal explosion at the Ford Rouge Complex power plant in Dearborn, Mich., played a factor in the company's union contract agreement with United Auto Workers.

The fatal explosion at the Ford Rouge Complex power plant in Dearborn, Mich., played a factor in the company's union contract agreement with United Auto Workers (UAW).

Ford spokesperson Ed Miller said the accident, which resulted in six dead and 14 injured workers, had an effect on the health and safety aspects of the contract agreed to on Oct. 9 and ratified Oct. 26.

The Feb. 2, 1999, accident was about four months before negotiations began on what resulted in a contract covering hourly workers at Ford facilities in the United States. UAW also reached agreement this fall with General Motors (GM) and DaimlerChrysler. Hundreds of thousands of autoworkers are covered for four years in the three contracts.

State investigators found a significant number of workplace safety and health violations present at the time of the boiler explosion and a substantial lack of safety industry practices by Ford.

"It was a horrible accident and was in the back of everyone's mind when contract negotiations began," Miller said. "The pressure of having the accident so close to bargaining weighed very heavily on everyone's mind."

One area of the contract that dealt with work-related deaths was new tuition assistance benefits for surviving spouses and dependents. Health and safety aspects of the contract also were consistent with a $7 million settlement between the state of Michigan, Ford and UAW, such as $1.7 million for increased occupational health and safety research.

The UAW contracts with the Big Three automakers build on previously negotiated health and safety protections, said Frank Mirer, Ph.D., CIH, who is UAW's health and safety director.

"We made progress on ergonomics, chemical hazard control, fatality prevention and many other areas," Mirer said. "We think it's a good agreement."

Other areas in the Ford contract that contain health and safety advances:

  • The newly instituted Safety Leadership Initiative will focus on leadership commitment and management involvement and accountability at all levels and place a daily focus on prevention of accidents and injuries.
  • Joint safety reviews for manufacturing, assembly and parts distribution will be conducted at least every 18 months and will include scheduled and unscheduled facility audits.
  • Each plant will identify a noise engineering control coordinator to review local noise control and hearing conservation efforts with unit health and safety (H&S) representatives.
  • Each location will establish a near-miss reporting procedure to ensure that employees are not discouraged from reporting near misses for fear of reprisal.
  • Unit H&S reps will receive advance notice of H&S inspections by private agencies, licensed inspectors required by statute, consultants retained by the company and, when possible, government agencies. The reps may be present at these inspections.
  • Safety talks will be conducted at least monthly by plant supervisors to review near misses, alert workers of potential hazards and underscore the importance of safe work practices.
  • Training for supervisors and committeepersons will be provided on H&S fundamentals, accident investigations, communications and ergonomics. Likewise, unit H&S reps and safety engineers will be required to be certified to a level of core competency in industrial hygiene, ergonomics and safety.
  • Skilled-trade workers will receive newly developed H&S training, have their job's safety analyzed and become involved in the ergonomics program.
  • Ergonomic guidelines will be developed and implemented at the earliest stages of the product or process development cycle, with specific timelines for fixes.
  • Each manufacturing, assembly and parts distribution facility will have effective emergency response plans and notification systems.
  • Outside contractors will be required to comply with Ford H&S requirements.

GM's and Chrysler's contracts contain many of the same health and safety advances as Ford's pact. A highlight of the GM agreement is a worker's right to request a review when there is a reasonable belief that the work assignment may result in serious injury or illness.

Chrysler's contract includes implementation of a new safety proposal called Bringing Excellence to Safety Teams (BEST). One element of BEST will be to include risk assessment and hazard control for high-risk jobs.

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