Death on the job
The number of workplace fatalities in Virginia is way up this year – 32 deaths as of Aug. 23 — compared to 31 for all of last year, according to Virginia’s Department of Labor (DOL). However, only one company, Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. in Danville, has experienced multiple deaths, four in all, over the course of the past year, said Jennifer Rose, safety director for Virginia’s Occupational Safety and Health Compliance program (VOSH).
“We’re addressing it with them. It’s an ongoing discussion … The union is involved. They are just as concerned with these fatalities as we are,” Rose said.
In what a union official says is “very unusual,” the four deaths have occurred in separate accidents, an assessment verified by Goodyear.
“All four accidents were quite different,” said Mike Wright, director of health, safety and environment with the United Steelworkers Union in Pittsburgh, the union representing workers at the Danville plant.
The union has assigned an investigator to the plant, and Wright said Goodyear is cooperating with inspections and investigations underway by the state and the union. In addition to the four deaths, an employee suffered second-degree burns in a plant accident in April.
“We’ve had situations where four people have died in a year, but it’s often been in a single accident,” said Wright. However, “it’s not unprecedented. We’ve had other situations where four people have died in the same plant in one year, but it’s very unusual.’’
According to Wright, the union sees about 30 fatalities a year among its 700,000 members who work in about 3,000 workplaces. “So to have four of those 30 in one workplace is pretty unusual.”
In a statement from Akron-based Goodyear to Virginia Business, the tire company said, “The safety of Goodyear associates is our highest priority. We are deeply concerned about any safety incident that occurs in our facilities and are saddened by the recent events at Danville. The four occurrences there are out of the ordinary relative to our historical safety record. Prior to these events, Goodyear’s North America manufacturing facilities had not experienced an industrial fatality since 2008. Each incident at Danville involved different physical conditions and circumstances within different areas of the facility on different types of machinery. As a result, we are currently studying this most recent event thoroughly to learn what went wrong, and to continue to improve our safety program at Danville.”
The company went on to say it has “initiated numerous improvements to our short- and long-term plans to make Danville a better, safer place to work, ranging from implementation of new safeguards throughout the plant to process improvements. OSHA has inspected the machine involved in the Aug. 12, fatality and released it for production. We will continue to focus on improving safety, fixing issues as they arise and increasing safety awareness among all associates.”
Data at the website of the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), a division of the U. S. Department of Labor, give a brief description of the cause behind reported workplace fatalities, which employers are required by law to report. According to the data for the deaths that have occurred at Goodyear since last August:
- Jeanie Strader, 56, died on Aug, 31, 2015, after being caught in the plant’s steam rollers.
- Kevin Edmonds, 54, died on March 31, 2016, after being crushed between a wall and a pallet.
- Greg Cooper, 52, died on April 12, after falling into a vat of boiling water and oil.
The outcome of inspections are pending in several of these cases and until cases are closed, the agency points out that entries concerning specific OSHA inspections are subject to continuing correction and updating, particularly with regard to citation items.
In the most recent death of 47-year-old electrician, William “Billy” Scheier on Aug. 12, there is no OSHA data posted. However, according to the medical examiner’s office in Roanoke, the cause of his death — termed an industrial accident by the state — was blunt injuries to the chest and mechanical asphyxiation. Dr. Amy Tharp, the examiner in the case, said those terms refer to a crushing type of injury and a weight to the chest that physically prevents a person from breathing.
Rose said VOSH opened another inspection of the Goodyear plant after Scheier’s death. In response to the first fatality, Strader’s death last August, VOSH did an inspection and issued three citations, recommending fines of nearly $17,000 for violations it deemed serious, according to DOL records.
Goodyear has contested those citations, which included violating a safety standard over the guarding of floor and wall openings and holes, for which VOSH recommended a penalty of $2,974. The two other citations related to Strader’s death involved the control of hazardous energy (lockout-tagout) for which it recommended two penalties of $7,000 each. This safety standard covers the servicing and maintenance of machines and equipment in which an unexpected startup could harm employees.
After the third fatality in April, Goodyear closed its Danville plant for several days to cooperate with VOSH’s investigation.
Currently, Vosh has several inspections open related to the deaths, and it also has opened inspections not related to fatalities, Rose said. VOSH has six months from the time it opens an investigation to issue a report with any citations.
In Virginia’s recent public service announcement on the surge in workplace deaths, C. Ray Davenport , commissioner for Virginia’s Department of Labor and Industry, said that in July alone, eight Virginia workers lost their lives. “If this horrific trend in workplace deaths continues, Virginia will experience an 80 percent increase in fatal accidents investigated by the VOSH program in 2016,” he said. Virginia recorded 31 workplace fatalities in both 2015 and 2014.
In 2014, OSHA reported a total of 4,821 deaths across the country. Davenport urged employers to review injury prevention programs and safety and health procedures with employees.
Asked if she had any theories about the uptick in deaths, Rose said, “When the economy improves, there’re more employees in the workplace. There could be deficiencies in training and that would increase their risk as well.’’
When Davenport’s announcement was issued on Aug. 4, Virginia’s count stood at 29 deaths. Since then, the fourth fatality at Goodyear occurred, and Rose said companies in Lynchburg and Blackstone saw one death each, bringing the total count to 32. In Lynchburg, 56-year-old Jesse Horsley died when he was trapped by a fallen piece of scrap metal at Griffin Pipe Products Co., according to news reports.
Last year, more than half of all workplace fatalities in Virginia occurred in general industry (manufacturing, logging, etc.) So far in 2016, of the 29 deaths reported initially by the state, nine of them occurred in the construction industry, an industry that saw the most number of fatal accidents in 2014, but a drop in deaths in 2015.
Falls, being struck by an object and electrocution are the most frequently cited safety hazards by OSHA.
While OSHA’s job, and the job of the state VOSH office, is to enforce regulatory safety laws, Wright says the union’s mission is more big-picture. The job of the union, Wright said, “is to go deeper. We’re looking for underlying causes, for what it was that may have lead to violations, in how work is organized, in how management is organized, in whether there are enough people to do different jobs, the way the company does hazard recognition. All of those things. That kind of investigation takes longer.”
Another key thing the union looks for is “is there something unique about that plant or do these factors exist in other Goodyear plants and in other tire industry plants and in other industrial plants in general? Do we see any pattern? We have lots of information and data that we are analyzing at this point. We don’t want to comment on specifics until everything is tied down.”
Goodyear is Danville’s largest employer with more than 2,000 workers.