Workers Memorial Day in Tyler, Texas: Has Tyler Pipe Seen the Light?

It was no accident that the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) picked Tyler, Texas to observe Workers Memorial Day, according to Michael Wright, the union's director of safety and health.

"We chose Tyler because of Tyler Pipe, the attention given to it by the media and the many tragedies that took place there," said Wright, who flew in from Pittsburgh to commemorate more than a score of workers who have died in the region, and to see for himself if Tyler Pipe is committed to shedding its reputation as one of the most dangerous places to work in the nation.

The company has a long history of expensive OSHA violations, worker fatalities and injuries. The safety problems extend to its parent company, McWane Industries, Inc., of Birmingham Ala., according to an investigation conducted by PBS's Frontline, the New York Times and the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., titled, "A Dangerous Business."

As recently as April 11, Tyler Pipe agreed to pay $196,000 in OSHA fines, the same day the company was cited for serious, repeat, and other-than-serious violations of health and safety regulations.

But Tyler appears now to be a convert to workplace safety.

"The company's worksite is enormously improved," asserted Wright after his April 25 site visit, "both in terms of eliminating physical hazards and in its management structure."

Virtually every senior manager in the plant has been replaced, 10 new safety staffers have been added, and in a sign the changes go beyond Tyler, the union just signed a comprehensive safety agreement with McWane covering eight plants with USWA representation.

"It's been a long struggle with Tyler, but I see some positive signs," said Jack Miles, OSHA's regional director overseeing the enforcement action. "We see an attitude change at the corporate level and at Tyler."

McWane's president, Ruffner Page, just completed a 10-hour OSHA safety course.

"I bet there's not another CEO in the country who has done that," commented attorney Pat Tyson, a former OSHA official who has been hired as a consultant by McWane.

Both Tyson and Wright believe the company's resolve to improve safety pre-dates the media spotlight cast by the New York Times and Frontline reports.

"They were indicted in 2000, in a rare criminal prosecution after a worker fatality," said Wright. "I'm sure that got their attention."

Under current law, companies guilty of OSHA violations that result in the death of a worker can only be charged with a misdemeanor. Tyler's penalty for the criminal prosecution was one year of probation. The same enforcement action also carried a $1 million fine.

In honor of Workers Memorial Day, Sen. Jon Corzine, D-NJ, announced April 28 that he intends to introduce legislation within one month that would make it a felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison, to commit a willful violation of OSHA rules that leads to a worker's death on the job.

In a letter written last month that referred to the deaths of eight McWane workers tied to safety violations, Corzine appealed to OSHA Administrator John Henshaw to support this legislation.

OSHA has taken no position on the proposal.

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