When occupational safety gets caught up in a bitter labor dispute, does it lead to safety problems, or OSHA problems, or both? These are some of the questions raised by the tangled history of the Rocky Mountain Steel Mills (RMSM) Pueblo, Colo., plant.
Three years ago, RMSM came close to winning a dubious distinction when it was hit with a $1.1 million fine, the second largest in state history. That was also the year the company''s bitter labor dispute with the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) began, when union workers went out on strike.
This past August the company did set a state record when OSHA inspectors cited the company for 1,078 violations of 107 serious and repeat workplace safety and health standards.
"This is the most instances we''ve ever found in a single facility in Colorado," said John Healy, OSHA''s area director.
Many of the recent citations were for the same issues OSHA found in 1997, according to OSHA Administrator Charles Jeffress.
The 10-week wall-to-wall inspection started in February after a load of red-hot steel rods burned worker Thomas Bernel to death. Bernel was transporting the billets in a vehicle that caught the lip of a protruding manhole cover, causing three of the rods to crash into the driver''s cab.
OSHA said the company has been fined $7,000 for a manhole cover "that did not comply with standard highway requirements."
The case prompted strong words about RMSM from Jeffress.
Despite the huge 1997 fine, he said," management has continued to disregard safety. The result is a tragedy that more attention to safety and health could have prevented."
Jeffress'' words provoked an immediate response from RMSM''s parent company Oregon Steel spokesperson Vicki Tagliafico. "I think it''s irresponsible for him to suggest that this company disregards employee safety," she said.
The sharp and unusual exchange between the company and Jeffress came just before RMSM, like most recipients of big OSHA citations, planned to meet with OSHA officials to try to reduce the latest $487,000 fine.
After negotiations, the company ended up paying only $400,000 of its 1997 $1.1 million fine.
Tagliafico suggested that OSHA had been pressured by the USWA to find fault with the company because of an ongoing labor dispute between the union and RMSM. Adding fuel to the fire is the fact that the latest fines are certain to help the union''s drive to get public transit agencies to boycott the company''s products.
The recent announcement also stirred up smoldering resentments surrounding the death of Bernel.
Jon Corvin, president and CEO of the company said it was "reprehensible" that the steelworkers would want to take advantage of the death of a valued mill employee to damage the company "with their campaign of lies." Tagliafico accused the union of trying to dramatize a "freak accident."
John Perquin is the USWA''s assistant director for health, safety, and the environment, and his take on the company echoed Jeffress''s.
"This is a company that seems intent on paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in health and safety fines, but only will pay lip service to worker health and safety," said Perquin.
Tagliafico took exception to this, and to virtually everything else the union and OSHA had to say. The company says it is a big job to modernize a plant that in some areas is over 100 years old: RMSM has spent more than $200 million to improve the sprawling facility since buying it out of bankruptcy in 1993.
Another safety issue, according to Tagliafico, stems from training a new workforce hired after a bitter strike led to the firing of many union employees, though she also said the accidents were with the veteran workers.
The company said none of the recent citations were willful, none involved imminent danger, and 90 percent of the items were fixed after the inspection.
Healy said the repeat citations were violations of the same standard but in a different area than the previous inspection.
"We have not had a problem with them fixing things that we''ve pointed out," he said. "We''ve had a problem with them getting proactive and not fixing things before we pointed them out."
According to OSHA, the majority of the violations have to do with walking-working surfaces, exits, personal protective equipment, materials handling and storage, machinery and machine guarding, and electrical violations.
At many plants, workers and managers agree that whatever other disagreements they may have, both sides will never fight about safety. This is not the case at RMSM.
Perquin charged that for months union officials tried to meet with the company on safety and health issues, but the company refused.
"That is a lie," responded Tagliafico. She accused the union of using safety to destroy the company''s reputation, said that local union president Ernie Hernandez failed to attend safety meetings before the strike, and added that the company has documented his attendance at meetings since.
Perquin said he prefers to keep safety and health out of labor-management disputes, but he admitted in this case there is clearly a connection.
"We know the company is having cash flow problems since the strike, and I suspect that is having an impact on their ability to do preventive maintenance to equipment," he said. He also cited health and training problems resulting from the company''s need to cut corners.
The union has been monitoring the injury and mortality rates at RMSM over the past three years.
"We know the steel industry well and they (RMSM) have by far the worst health and safety record in the entire industry," Perquin said. "And since the strike began in 1997 it''s only gotten worse."
by James Nash