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Lucky to Be Alive on Workers Memorial Day

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On Feb. 12, Edward Lewis Neal told his wife goodbye and drove to the Cooper Tire plant in Texarkana, Ark., where his co-workers called him Preacher because of his ministry at the Springdale Church of God and Christ.

When an ambulance took Preacher from Cooper Tire that day, he left behind most of the flesh of his left hand and, as a result, the ability to clasp his God-given hands in prayer.  

The rubber milling machine that took Preacher’s hand lacked a body bar safety device. Four days later, on Feb. 16 at the Bridgestone-Firestone plant in Des Moines, Iowa, 30-year-old maintenance worker Dan Keeney lost his left arm to an auger that was not covered. Two days after that, on Feb. 18 back at Cooper Tire in Texarkana, a rubber milling machine with a body bar safety device that had been disabled for years crushed both hands of 42-year-old D.E. Morris Charles Hunter.

Those manufacturing workers are maimed. But they survived. Too many do not. Today, my union, the United Steelworkers (USW), will toll a bell for each of the 33 Steelworkers killed on the job since last Workers’ Memorial Day 12 months ago, including John Meyer, who was 51 when he was fatally injured in July at the Bridgestone-Firestone tire plant in LaVergne, Tenn.

Before Cooper hired Preacher in 1993, he had tried for a decade to get a job at the tire plant. What he sought was a steady job with good pay and benefits negotiated by the USW. When Preacher finally got in, he pledged to work hard and diligently in exchange for that compensation. He never agreed, however, to forfeit a hand for it.

Sometimes, corporations place production and profit above human safety. As a result, workers lose lives and limbs. Cooper recently announced it will spend $970,000 to improve safety. That’s good. But it comes too late for the two Cooper workers who are now amputees. A corporation that values workers’ lives engages in proactive safety, and thus preserves the hands applauding it.

Preacher realized the machine he operated for the past couple of years at Cooper was dangerous. It is a mill that grinds, heats and remolds rubber. He fed rubber into its two drums rolling against each other, one with a smooth surface, the other grooved.

He knew he had to be vigilant because the rubber mill had grabbed gloves off of his hands. That, he said, was scary.

“It doesn’t take much, even if you are being as careful as you can; it doesn’t take much for you to get caught in the rubber,” Preacher recounted. “Even though you’d be paying attention, sometimes it would just happen. It might catch the glove and pull the glove off. It happened before you knew it. If it catches that glove far enough, it catches you.”

That’s what happened to him on Feb. 12. When he put rubber on the mill and tried to get it to attach, he said, “it caught me before I knew it.”

With his right hand, he pulled an emergency cable, which stopped the machine. By then, though, the mill had splayed his left hand.

There’s a safety device called a body bar that’s designed to prevent a mill operator from getting close enough to the machine to lose a hand. It’s placed in front of the machine so that if the worker leans in too far, his body presses the bar, automatically switching off the mill before it can snatch a hand or arm or life.

Sometimes body bars are annoying because they restrict operator movement and stop mills unnecessarily. There was no body bar at the mill where Preacher worked.

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