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"An Indifference to Life"

Last week, the New York Times ran a series of articles, "Dangerous Business," on "McWane Inc., a privately held company based in Birmingham, Ala... one of the most dangerous employers in America." One of the articles in the series, "At a Texas Foundry, an Indifference to Life", focused on Tyler Pipe of Tyler, Texas, a pipe foundry whose former owners, owners, the Tyler Corporation, "were conventionally paternalistic. They distributed turkeys at Christmas and door prizes at the annual employee barbecue." Then in 1995, Tyler Corporation sold Tyler Pipe to McWane, and its descent into Hell began. Anecdotes told in the story range from the demeaning to the unimaginable:

On June 29, 2000, in his second month on the job, [48 year-old master electrician Rolan] Hoskin descended into a deep pit under a huge molding machine and set to work on an aging, balky conveyor belt that carried sand. Federal rules require safety guards on conveyor belts to prevent workers from getting caught and crushed. They also require belts to be shut down when maintenance is done on them.

But this belt was not shut down, federal records show. Nor was it protected by metal safety guards. That very night, Mr. Hoskin had been trained to adjust the belt while it was still running. Less downtime that way, the men said. Now it was about 4 a.m., and Mr. Hoskin was alone in the cramped, dark pit. The din was deafening, the footing treacherous under heavy drifts of black sand.

He was found on his knees. His left arm had been crushed first, the skin torn off. His head had been pulled between belt and rollers. His skull had split...

It was not just a conveyor belt that claimed Mr. Hoskin's life that warm summer night. He also fell victim to a way of doing business that has produced vast profits and, as the plant's owners have admitted in federal court, deliberate indifference to the safety of workers at Tyler Pipe...

Since 1995, at least 4,600 injuries have been recorded in McWane foundries, many hundreds of them serious ones, company documents show. Nine workers, including Mr. Hoskin, have been killed. McWane plants, which employ about 5,000 workers, have been cited for more than 400 federal health and safety violations, far more than their six major competitors combined...

The story of Tyler Pipe, drawn from company and government documents and interviews with dozens of current and former workers and managers, is a case study in the application of the McWane way. It is the anatomy of a workplace where, federal officials and employees say, nearly everything -- safety programs, environmental controls, even the smallest federally mandated precautions that might have kept Rolan Hoskin alive -- has been subordinated to production, to the commandment to keep the pipe rolling off the line...

In late 1995, the Tyler Corporation sold the foundry to McWane. In one stroke, McWane had bought one of its main rivals and acquired its largest plant.

Within weeks, senior executives flew in from Birmingham and set about executing a plan of stunning audacity: Over the next two years, they cut nearly two-thirds of the employees, yet insisted that production continue apace. They eliminated quality control inspectors and safety inspectors, pollution control personnel and relief workers, cleaning crews and maintenance workers...

Even the most basic amenities did not survive. The barbecues and 401(k) plan were easy enough targets. But items like soap, medicated skin cream and hand towels were eliminated from the plant stockroom as unnecessary "luxuries," company records show. If they were available at all, they had to be specially ordered with approval from top managers.

Several workers said they were told by their bosses to bring their own toilet tissue. Near the cupola, managers rationed crushed ice for the workers' drinks, company records show. Out by the loading docks, they eliminated portable heaters used by forklift drivers to warm up in winter. "We do not provide comfort heat for individual employees," Dick Stoker, the works manager, explained in a memorandum.

Restrictions were placed on safety equipment. Protective aprons, safety boots and face shields were no longer stocked and readily available. Heavy, heat-resistant $17 gloves were replaced by $2 cloth ones. As a result, workers wrapped their hands in duct tape to protect from burns...

Morale plummeted, but profits soared. Senior managers say they were told that Tyler Pipe earned more than $50 million in 1996 -- double the reported profits for the five-year period before McWane arrived...

On Jan. 22, 1997, [a] maintenance worker, Ira Cofer, descended alone into a machine pit. "Downsizing had ended the earlier practice of entering the pits with a buddy," OSHA investigators later wrote. When Mr. Cofer's sleeve snagged in an unguarded conveyor belt, he struggled desperately to free himself. It was nearly three hours before his screams were heard.

"Eyewitnesses said that the friction of the belt had sanded his arm away, so that even his elbow joint was worn smooth and flat," investigators wrote.

Mr. Cofer's arm had to be amputated.

This sort of thing is one of the reasons I'm no longer a libertarian. Relying on freedom of choice to constrain the more brutal tendencies of the marketplace sounds like a good idea when you're writing thought pieces, and I can imagine societal and technological changes that might make it work. The world we live in today, however, precludes such ideas.

If you emasculate safety regulations and the people who enforce them, then some businesses will take advantage of the change by decreasing worker safety. A significant segment of society, with relatively few skills and low wage prospects, will feel compelled to work for such employers even at immense risk to themselves. To write off whatever happens as a result to personal choice -- to say the workers freely decided to take the jobs they did and so bear responsibility for what happened to them -- is the kind of philosophy that may be true at a theoretical level, but is nothing short of ludicrous in the real world.

Comments

I was a Tyler Pipe maintenance mechanic from 78-97
David Gish

David, can you tell us more about your experience there? Was it as described in the article?

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