Union Wants its own Investigation of Fatality

An investigation by the Michigan Occupational Safety And Health Administration of a worker's death at Graphic Packaging in Kalamazoo isn't enough for the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical & Energy Workers (PACE) International Union.

The union filed unfair labor practice charges against Graphic Packaging Corp., and is seeking an injunction through the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The union is trying to force Graphic Packaging to allow its emergency response team access to the plant to conduct an investigation into the Nov. 8 fatality of a replacement worker who was suffocated when a paper bail fell on him. The PACE emergency response team conducts root-cause investigations of accidents so they can be prevented in the future.

"Graphic Packaging denied access to the facility when our emergency response team asked permission to investigate," said Bill Gibbons, PACE Region Nine vice president. "This team contains former OSHA inspectors who know what to look for and what questions to ask the [Michigan] OSHA inspectors on the scene, thereby reducing the likelihood of future similar types of accidents."

The union has been at odds with management at Graphic Packaging since the company locked out 429 PACE-represented employees on July 27 when the workers rejected the company's contract proposals.

Union members claim the accident was caused by the temporary worker's lack of experience. He was hired by the company through a temporary agency called Trillium Staffing, and had been working as a fork truck operator at the facility for about a month.

Authorities say the man died Friday afternoon while he was trying to cut the wire holding together a bale of paper. Part of the bale, which weighed as much as 2,000 pounds, fell on him.

"That's a dangerous place in there," said locked-out union member Mike Ascherman, who worked at the facility for 20 years. "If anybody knows anything about a paper mill, there are way too many ways to get in trouble."

Gard Edgarton, director of investor relations for the company, which is headquartered in Golden, Colo., said the company would have no comment since the accident was still under investigation. Trillium Staffing declined comment as well. Edgarton did say the worker who was killed received the same training as the company offered the unionized workers who worked there until July 27.

Both union members and company representatives say this is the first fatality anyone can remember at the facility, and according to MIOSHA, the company has a good safety record.

Pace's Gibbons said the union's emergency response team takes a systems approach to safety "because any number of factors can cause an accident, such as excessive overtime hours worked and lack of training and experience. You can't automatically blame a worker for his or her own death."

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