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Sudden Death

A young steel worker dies and an industry grapples with a disturbing rise in fatalities on the job.
 
 
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The night before Herbie Tolman took the electrician's test at Gary Works, the steel plant in Gary, Indiana, he was up all night vomiting.

It wasn't just that this was a chance at a secure full-time job, and that ever since high school, Herbie always seemed to be bouncing around – one year as a bartender, another running his own crane repair business, yet another working in some of the other local steel mills. Nor was it simply the money, though the $75,000 starting salary would triple the income from odd jobs that he was bringing in to support his wife, Randa, and their two young children, Sydney and Cameron.

More than anything else, a job at Gary Works meant being part of U.S. Steel, the legendary Pittsburgh company founded in 1901 by J.P. Morgan, Charles Schwab and Andrew Carnegie, and America's most prolific steel producer ever since. Gary Works, as it happened, was U.S. Steel's largest plant, a mammoth 3,000-acre facility on the southern shore of Lake Michigan, belching out some 7.5 million tons of steel products ever year to make cars, buildings and home appliances.

Most people in the city of Gary and the surrounding blue collar steel towns, the soul of this part of Indiana for over a hundred years, knew that it was hard to do better than Gary Works, especially if, like Herbie Tolman, you didn't have a college degree. It was the kind of job where, if you were lucky enough to get hired, you were proud to remind neighbors and relatives where you worked; the kind of job where you'd throw on a U.S. Steel T-shirt every time you drove into town, slap company bumpers stickers on your car and join the ranks of one of the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) local unions; the kind of job where you'd most likely have food on your family's table until the day you died.

Randa's father, Randall, had worked as a crane repairman at Gary Works for over 30 years fixing the overhead cranes which could span four stories and were used to hoist steel coils around the plant. And he had put in the good word for his son-in-law with the company. Now it was up to Herbie to take the electrician's test and make it in.

And Herbie wanted to pass the test so bad, wanted the job so bad, that he ended up being sick all night, throwing up.

Herbie felt better the next day, took the test and made it. "His whole world changed when he found out about the job," Randa says. "He was so proud."

Over the next five years, Herbie would talk about how much he loved his work to anyone who'd listen – Randa, the kids, even his mother, who he'd call from the plant to talk about what he'd been fixing that day. He especially liked to chat cheerfully about work with Pete Shaffer, his close friend and crane repair crewmate, as they'd change brushes and tips and repair motors on the old cranes. Pete would sometimes joke about how he couldn't shut Herbie up, but Herbie would just laugh. At 39, this was what Herbie had always dreamed of doing, and he was glad everyone knew it.

"Herbie talked about his job around the clock, and he was good at it too," Shaffer remembers. "He was just really a charismatic guy. Everyone liked him."

And then came that fateful autumn day last September. Randa woke with Herbie at 4 AM as she always did, to see him off to work. She'd made him a cup of coffee as usual, knowing he'd likely leave most of it and grab a second cup from the gas station down the street as was his ritual.

As Randa readied herself for a school field trip with Sydney to a farm outside of town, Herbie told her he'd be cooking the steaks and vegetables out on the grill that night. Randa smiled to herself. Herbie loved to cook, especially when he could grill outside in their backyard. Truth be told, he did more cooking than she did, which was fine with her because she always said that if Herbie hadn't been a steel man, he would have been a gourmet chef.

"Have a great time on that field trip," Herbie grinned back, before closing the door behind him.

That afternoon, as Randa was driving back home from the field trip with Sydney, she thought of Herbie hunched diligently over the grill – the tiki torches he'd posted around the backyard flickering from the whisper of cool, western Indiana autumn air as the sweet smoke from the fresh corn and steaks filled the air.

Almost a soon as they got home, Randa heard the van roar into the driveway. Then the strong, hurried footsteps, followed by loud knocking. There were six of them standing there when she opened the door.

"Yes?"

"Mrs. Tolman?"

"Yes."

"We're from U.S. Steel."

"Yes..."

"There's been an accident. You have to come with us."

It had been a massive 1,600-pound wheel from one of the overhead cranes which did it, they said. Herbie had been working on it and the wheel just fell, suddenly, and crushed him. They told her that Herbie had died around 11 AM, and that he was gone the moment it hit him.

At the hospital, Herbie looked like he was sleeping too – clean shaven, a white sheet tucked under his chin, the same grin with which he'd left her on his lips, fresh blood leaking out of both his ears. According to the Lake County Coroner's report, the wheel had flown into Herbie's upper body after becoming dislodged from a jack, fracturing his skull and severely injuring his chest.

That Saturday, friends, families and workers crammed into the funeral home in Portage, the town where Herbie and Randa lived just outside of Gary, to pay their respects. Herbert's union, USWA Local 1066, paid for it all – the food, the funeral arrangements, everything. Sonny Tolman, Herbie's mother, couldn't believe how many people were there, at least 1,400 by her count, including all of her extended family, Herbert's ex-girlfriend from California, and old friends of her son's she hadn't seen since he was a boy. "I wanted the biggest sendoff I could have for my son and that's what we had," she says. "He had so many friends."

Meanwhile, local newspapers reported that U.S. Steel had fired two of Herbie's crewmates, including Pete Shaffer, for not following proper safety precautions just before the accident, and that investigators from the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) were at the plant trying to figure out exactly what happened.

A Spate Of Accidents

Herbie's death was the first at Gary Works in seven years, but there'd been others like it around the country last year.

In April, Ed Theriot was killed after being trapped between a steel cooling bed and a rail car from one of the trains which transports materials around the Bayou Steel Corporation plant in La Place, Louisiana.

In June, after working more than 20 years at Ispat International in East Chicago, Indiana, Tony Parker fell 20 feet from his work platform at the hot metal transfer station and died.

And just a month before Herbie died, Michael Carney had been crushed to death by a 35,000-pound roll used to flatten steel, which dropped from an overhead crane at the Allegheny Ludlum Steel plant in Vandegrift, Pennsylvania.

All told, after a steady decline in accidents and deaths at steel plants, USWA reported nine fatalities of its union members in steel plants in 2004, up from just three in 2003. Already this year, USWA says six workers have been killed in steel-related accidents, including Velma Burnette, crushed by a loose load of steel at the Republic Engineer Plant in Loraine, Ohio on January 27, the first woman killed at the plant in 40 years.

Explanations as to why this is happening are complex and differ depending on who's giving them, but there's clearly more than one factor involved. Certainly steel work has always been dangerous – most plants have hundreds of employees working skilled jobs with heavy equipment, molten metal and other combustibles and sometimes at dangerous heights. But over the past 20 years, automation of much of what occurs inside the plants has drastically reduced fatalities and accidents.

During the same period however, steel production at U.S. plants plummeted, largely because of foreign competition and an over-saturation of steel on the market. American plants downsized or closed, steel companies filed for bankruptcy and thousands of experienced workers were hustled off into generous early-retirement programs negotiated by the union.

But then, in recent years, a worldwide steel boom began to change the industry's fate and American steel plants have fired up production once again. According to the American Iron and Steel Institute, U.S. steel plants shipped off nearly six percent more product in 2004 than in 2003, and approximately 12 percent more than in 2002.

But while business is good, steel companies have suddenly found themselves without the "old timers," as they're called, whose mastery of their own specialized crafts has been particularly missed now that there's more work to be done. Ostensibly, a far younger, less experienced generation of workers like Herbie Tolman, have been thrust into technically demanding and often dangerous jobs without many of the veterans there to show them the safest way to work.

Unsure of how long the boom will last, steel companies have been reluctant to rehire, despite the fact that during the downturn, crew sizes were scaled down and safety and preventative maintenance staff reduced, says Mike Wright, director of health, safety and environment for USWA.

To meet the increased demand in production, many companies did the next best thing: they signed labor agreements with the USWA which allowed workers to be shifted from the job they'd initially trained for, to different departments within the plant. Indeed, more work, less knowledge and a reduced emphasis on safety have all contributed to the problem, it seems.

"The workers have been under extraordinary pressure," Wright says. This past summer, when it became apparent that the spate of fatalities in steel plants needed desperately to be addressed, three steel trade associations representing many of the major steel companies signed an alliance with OSHA to address safety concerns.

But they left the unions out of the alliance. USWA president Leo Gerard blasted the alliance in a July 8 statement, saying "If they were really interested in safety, they would have turned to the men and women who make these plants run."

An OSHA spokesman defended the decision saying that the trade associations did not want the union involved, at least at first, but that OSHA was open to engaging in a separate safety cooperative with the union.

Faced with the more immediate problem of how to handle the accidents at their own plants, many steel companies also began dealing with the situation individually, albeit in varying degrees.

According to the Wall Street Journal , Bayou Steel installed an automatic shut off switch on its rail cars after Ed Theriot was killed, and another company, International Steel Group, brought union representatives and company officials together to devise more stringent safety standards for its workers.

Last summer, after a series of non-fatal accidents and before Herbie Tolman died, U.S. Steel shut down all of its plants for one hour to talk safety with its workers. The company subsequently launched a reassessment of safety procedures for all of its jobs, and has sent officials out to plants to discuss working conditions.

But there's an underbelly to this safety-consciousness, says the union. U.S. Steel, says the USWA, has also been doing something very dangerous – disciplining employees for reporting injuries and accidents, and in the process forcing workers to think twice about coming forward when something in the plant has gone wrong.

"If there's an injury now, discipline often follows," says Wright. "And as a result, people just aren't reporting what's happening, so you lose basic information on how to make a plant safer."

Local union representatives at other U.S. Steel plants echo Wright's concern. Some workers at Granite City Works in Granite City, Illinois, say that since U.S. Steel took over the plant in 2003, their jobs have become considerably more dangerous, in part because, they say, the company discourages workers from reporting injuries or unsafe conditions.

"At this plant, if you're worried about the safety of the job you're doing, then you are considered insubordinate," says Gary Gaines, financial secretary for Granite City Works USWA Local 1899. "This company refuses to acknowledge that there are hazards in the steel industry."

Last December, one worker at the plant, Karl Richards, was killed from carbon monoxide poisoning while adjusting a valve on a blast furnace, and in February, another worker, David Prengel, was crushed against a loading dock by a cargo train.

John Armstrong, spokesman for U.S. Steel, would not comment on the disciplining of workers for reporting injuries or unsafe conditions, or on what the company was doing to improve safety at its plants. Nor would he say much about Herbie Tolman's death. "This was a terrible tragedy, and we've said everything we're going to say," Armstrong said. "We're not going to rehash this in the media another time."

On January 31, however, Indiana's OSHA office fined U.S. Steel a total of $6,125 for two serious violations involving Herbie Tolman's death. According to OSHA documents, the crane wheel Herbie's crew was working on was not properly cribbed or secured as it should have been, and the electrical extension cord the crew had used was damaged, exposing live wire.

Pete Shaffer, whose arms Herbie died in, is filing a grievance against U.S. Steel to get his job back, as is another co-worker, also fired after the accident. Their union is representing the workers and the process is likely to take months.

As for Randa Tolman, the $588 a week in workers compensation money she gets from the state is hardly enough to pay the bills and support two kids. U.S. Steel told her that Herbie's health insurance would be cut off, and it has, she says. In the meantime, Randa has hired attorneys and is considering legal action against the company in her husband's death.

What hurts the most, Randa says, is that U.S. Steel has yet to call or write to say how sorry it is about Herbie. In the end, she knows that's what he would have wanted.

"Not one person has called from Pittsburgh, not one person! Couldn't they have done that?" she wonders. "Herbie was so proud of that job. He loved it so much. I still can't believe he's never coming back."

Dan Frosch is a New York-based journalist whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, The Source and the Santa Fe Reporter.